Houllebecq has caused a great stir in the literary establishment, gushing out novels not only containing sleaze, shock and sexual perversion but also provocative commentaries and statements on society. Atomised is the book that catapulted him into notorious fame (some would say infamy).
He most certainly divides people. Many academic critics are highly dismissive of him because, in structuralist terms, his work is badly formed, and he often makes sweeping generalisations on his satiric targets to manipulate the reader and make his point.
There are so many ideas amounted on top of one another that it is difficult to condense what it truly is 'about'. Principally, Houllebecq is deconstructing post-war society (from a Frenchman's point of view), arguing that love has been replaced by sex and religion by pseudo spirituality embodied in new age philosophies. There is a furious, nihilistic contempt against humanity; Houllebecq seems to be indicting humanity for its political correctness, emotional detachment and malevolence. In something of a twist, which is latched on as a epilogue that I won't reveal here, Houllebecq appears to be disgusted with us yet, at the same time, oddly eulogising.
The two central characters are half-brothers; they know little of each other, both were abandoned by a hippie mother at a young age and both are stark opposites. Michel is a molecular biologist, who is deeply immersed in his profession and his little time for anything else. He is described as having had a precocious childhood, but since his infancy has rarely been capable connecting emotionally with others. The other half-brother is Bruno, a sex-obsessed libertine, plump, lascivious and a complete failure. He frequently visits resorts for the sole purpose of sexual adventure, his lusts never being fulfilled.
Bruno's sexual escapades are described graphically and frequently, the encounters rarely having any sort of affect or emotion from the participators. He drifts into marriage, pulls out of it and returns to this frantic world of sex. Michel can't sustain a relationship with a childhood sweetheart, retreating to his scientific work instead.
Houllebecq is far from subtle in the ways he transmits his messages. Characters frequently break off into philosophical discourse, vent their rage on a societal trend and a whole chapter consists of the two half-brothers suddenly having a conversation on Aldous Huxley, an author Houllebecq likes the idea of being compared to.
I certainly enjoyed reading it, the lurid sex and violence really exciting me, even when it uneasily takes a shift towards xenophobia and racial hatred. Its constant subversive and provocative tone make it a page-turner, although he often gets heavy-handed with the philosophising, which slowed me down and gave me pause for thought. A lot of the time the philosophising is insightful and perceptive, other times it is cheap and half-baked.
Having finally read this I can certainly see why it has drawn so much attention and won over both praise and condemnation. The thrilling and inducing nature of the book makes me place myself in the laudatory camp.