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Michel Houellebecq's dark and disturbing novel Atomised sees him establish himself as a unique and important voice in European letters. With his first work, Whatever, Houellebecq had created a sassy, street-wise bulletin of disaffected existentialism, and here that voice brilliantly extends its range. Atomised (from the French Les Particules élémentaires) is the story of two half-brothers, Michel and Bruno, who seem to represent two sides of Houellebecq himself (there are more than a few moments in the book where we feel we are reading a strange roman à clef). Michel, a molecular biologist, finds ordinary, human emotions inexplicable, making him seem abstruse and cold. Bruno is his opposite: a frustrated libertine trapped in a body most find repellant but still holding sex up as his most validating moment. Through these skewed archetypes an intricate, sometimes quite moving story of the brothers' lives is formed.

Houellebecq obviously has a formidable intellect and, like the best French writers, manages to rail against anthropology, psychoanalysis, New Age philosophy and modern society in general without losing sight of his narrative--indeed the narrative is controlled quite beautifully, the pacing excellent, the switching from one brother's story to the other's done with a quiet grace. While some of Houellebecq's views are at the least questionable, and while there are moments when the conclusions to be drawn from his broadsides are disturbing, this never negates the value of the work. This is an ambitious book in which Houellebecq asks important questions: if sex is continually degraded by its increasing commodification and, concomitantly, genetics increasingly offers us the opportunity for procreation without recourse to it, where does that leave us? How do we navigate ourselves, afloat as we are, in this new moral universe? What does the increasing pace of scientific change mean to the conversations non-scientists have about our lives? What place does something called spirituality, whatever that means, have in this brave, new world? This is a big, bold, clever book that has already achieved more than cult status in France. Houellebecq should be read, and read carefully, if not always believed. --Mark Thwaite