A bas le petit mort

The trouble with Michel Houellebecq, apart from his transfer to Arsenal, is never knowing whether to play him out wide or centrally as a striker. No, wait a minute, that’s Danny Wellbeck. Forgive me, I’ll start again.

The trouble with Michel Houellebecq is summed up by the cover of Atomised, the English translation of his second novel Les Particules élémentaires. It features a young woman wearing only a pair of briefs, the book’s title acting as a bikini top. One imagines the designer fiddling with the letters until any trace of nipple is obscured, a perfect example of the mismatch between hardware and software, of technology wasted on culture. Compare this with the cover of the French edition which depicts two half-seen men sitting on either side of a lit but empty space. Very philosophical. Perhaps the trouble lies not with the author but with us, the British, and our Page Three approach to novels of ideas.

However, that does not get Houellebecq entirely off the hook. Atomised is full of the most explicit, if clinical sex and although all that fucking and sucking serves a purpose it seems to have more than one eye on titillation for its own sake, on notoriety – and who knows, on sales. It is one reason why the book is likely to alienate women, reading at times like the seamiest of male fantasies with lovers improbably compliant while apologising for their inadequacies. True, the couplings are joyless and unerotic like most pornography and this supports Houellebecq’s more serious design, to nail the libido as humanity’s big distraction, the cause of our discontent, a literally fatal flaw. And yes, I do mean literally. He is the most mordant of moralists, filled with loathing for his species and civilization. But still the rutting continues, long after any point about its aridity has been proved; and I cannot help but feel he is trying to have it both ways, like a tabloid editor printing filth in order to appear scandalised.

The structure of the novel also rankles. We get a detailed insight into its protagonists’ lives, including a blow job by blow job account of their dealings with women, while the final section has more in common with Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men. Yet the narrative voice is undifferentiated even though the types of knowledge and perspective required in each case are poles apart. At this point the escape clause of post-modernism will no doubt be invoked. Rule-breaking and playfulness make anything permissible and who cares about point of view any more? Sadly, perhaps, I do – less on any technical or stylistic grounds than because a lack of attendance to such things undermines the other claims a writer might have to seriousness.

And Houellebecq has plenty. He is angry, uncompromising, original and most creditably of all ambitious. Taking as one’s subject the final crisis of mankind and the next stage in our evolution puts most modern fiction to shame not only with how far it is prepared to reach but also with its claims for the form. There is almost as much science as sex, my ignorance so profound I do not know if it is genuine or made up. And for all my quibbles about its narrator, that final section changes entirely one’s reading of what came before . I do not need to share the author’s apparent misanthropy. I might question or even pity his state of mind. But the fact remains I have rarely finished a book so invigorated by the novel’s capacity to reflect – no, remake the world.