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HATE AND HEDONISM
by JULIAN BARNES
The insolent art of Michel Houellebecq.
In 1998, I was one of the judges of the Prix Novembre, in Paris: a prize given, as its name implies, late in the literary season. After the Goncourt had got it wrong, and after stumblebum efforts by other prizes to correct the Goncourt’s errors, the Prix Novembre would issue a final, authoritative verdict on the year. It was unusual for a French prize in having a (slowly) rotating jury, foreign judges—Mario Vargas Llosa was also there—and serious money attached: about thirty thousand dollars for the winner.
That year, the major prizes had all failed to honor Michel Houellebecq’s “Les Particules Élémentaires,” and for months le cas Houellebecq had been simmering. Schoolteachers had protested the book’s explicit sexuality; the author had been expelled from his own literary-philosophical group for intellectual heresy. Nor was it just the book that provoked. One female member of our jury declared that she had admired the novel until she watched its author on television. The Maecenas of the prize, a businessman whose interventions the previous year had been very low-key, made a lengthy and impassioned attack on Houellebecq. He seemed, at the least, to be indicating where he didn’t want his money to go.
In the course of a rather tense discussion, it was Vargas Llosa who came up with the best description of “Les Particules Élémentaires”: “insolent.” He meant it, naturally, as a term of praise. There are certain books—sardonic and acutely pessimistic—that systematically affront all our current habits of living, and treat our presumptions of mind as the delusions of the cretinous. Voltaire’s “Candide” might be taken as the perfect example of literary insolence. In a different way, La Rochefoucauld is deeply insolent; so is Beckett, bleakly, and Roth, exuberantly. The book of insolence finds its targets in such concepts as a purposeful God, a benevolent and orderly universe, human altruism, the existence of free will.
Houellebecq’s novel—his second—was very French in its mixture of intellectuality and eroticism; it was reminiscent of Tournier in the evident pride it took in its own theoretical bone structure. It also had its faults: a certain heavy-handedness, and a tendency for the characters to make speeches rather than utter dialogue. But, in its high ambition and its intransigence, it was clearly superior to the other immediate contender for the prize, a novel that was very French in a different way: elegant, controlled, and old-fashioned—or, rather, classique, as I learned to say in judges’ jargon.
Houellebecq squeaked it by a single vote. Afterward, I was talking to the president of the jury, the writer and journalist Daniel Schneidermann, about the fuss our winner had kicked up in the press and on television. Perhaps, I suggested, it was just that he wasn’t médiatique—mediagenic. “On the contrary,” Schneidermann (who had voted for Houellebecq) replied. “He’s médiatique by being anti-médiatique. It’s very clever.” An hour or so later, in a gilded salon of the Hotel Bristol, before literary Paris’s smartest, a shabby figure in a baggy sweater and rumpled scarlet jeans took his check and—in the spirit of his novel—declined to wallow in bourgeois expressions of pleasure or gratitude. Not all were charmed. “It’s an insult to the members of the jury,” one French publisher whispered to me, “for him to accept the prize without having washed or gone to the dry cleaner’s.”
Our Maecenas also got huffy, and announced the following year that the Prix Novembre would be suspended for twelve months, so that we could discuss its future direction. Most jury members thought this unnecessary, not to say a touch insolent; so we decamped to a new sponsor and renamed ourselves the Prix Décembre. Meanwhile, the novel was translated into English, and Anglophones became aware of what Schneidermann had told me: its author was médiatique by being anti-médiatique. The literary world is one of the easiest in which to acquire a bad-boy reputation, and Houellebecq duly obliged. When the (female) profiler from the Times visited him, he got catatonically drunk, collapsed face down into his dinner, and told her he’d answer further questions only if she slept with him. Houellebecq’s wife was also enlisted, posing for the photographer in her underwear and offering a loyal quote of treasurable quality. “Michel’s not depressed,” she told the interviewer. “It’s the world that’s depressing.”
If Houellebecq is, on the evidence of “The Elementary Particles,” the most potentially weighty French novelist to emerge since Tournier—and the wait has been long, and therefore overpraise understandable—his third novel, “Platform” (translated by Frank Wynne; Knopf; $25), opens with a nod in an earlier direction. No French writer could begin a novel “Father died last year” without specifically invoking Camus’s “The Stranger.” Houellebecq’s narrator is called Renault, perhaps hinting that such a man has become a mere cog in a mechanized society; but the name also chimes with Meursault, Camus’s narrator. And for a clincher: Renault’s father has been sleeping with his North African cleaner, Aïcha, whose brother beats the old man to death. When the son is brought face to face with his father’s murderer, he reflects, “If I had had a gun, I would have shot him without a second thought. Killing that little shit . . . seemed to me a morally neutral act.” Cut to Meursault’s gunning down of the Arab on the beach in Algiers, and his similar moral indifference to the act.
But, in the sixty years that lie between “The Stranger” and “Platform,” alienation and anomie have moved on. So have expressions of disrespect for the parent. As a schoolboy in the sixties, I found Meursault’s transgressive opening words—“Mother died today. Or perhaps yesterday, I don’t know”—registering like a slap (and I wasn’t a pious son, either). Nowadays, you have to slap harder:
As I stood before the old man’s coffin, unpleasant thoughts came to me. He had made the most of life, the old bastard; he was a clever cunt. “You had kids, you fucker,” I said spiritedly, “you shoved your fat cock in my mother’s cunt.” I was a bit tense, I have to admit. It’s not every day you have a death in the family.
Houellebecq ups the ante; but it’s also his trademark to follow the coffinside vituperation with the wry “I was a bit tense.” “The Elementary Particles” was hard to summarize (well, it’s about the third “metaphysical mutation” of the last two thousand years, that of molecular biology, which will see cloning put an end to the fear of death and the miseries of genetic individualism . . .) without making it sound heavy; on the page, there was a satirical glee to its denunciations, drollery in the dystopia.
“Platform” begins very much in the mode of “The Elementary Particles,” with a radically detached male narrator, a child of the information age, excoriating the falseness of the world. He boasts the “disinterested attitude appropriate to an accounts manager” toward almost everything. He is emotionally mute, and socially, too, and thus barely able to converse with Aïcha. When she begins criticizing Islam, he more or less agrees, though he isn’t entirely hard-line about it: “On an intellectual level, I was suddenly capable of acknowledging the attractions of the Muslim vagina.”
Anyone not yet offended? But Houellebecq, or, rather, “Michel,” as his narrator is elidingly called, has barely started. Snorting contempt is coming the way of the following: Frederick Forsyth and John Grisham; Jacques Chirac; the Guide du Routard (a French equivalent of the Rough Guides); package tourists; France (“a sinister country, utterly sinister and bureaucratic”—copy that to Bush and Blair); the Chinese; the “bunch of morons [who] died for the sake of democracy” on Omaha Beach; most men; most women; children; the unattractive; the old; the West; Muslims; the French channel TV5; Muslims again; most artists; Muslims yet again; and finally, frequently, the narrator himself.
What does Michel approve of? Peepshows, massage parlors, pornography, Thai prostitutes, alcohol, Viagra (which helps you overcome the effects of alcohol), cigarettes, non-white women, masturbation, lesbianism, troilism, Agatha Christie, double penetration, fellatio, sex tourism, and women’s underwear. You may have spotted an odd one out there. Frederick Forsyth may be a “halfwit,” while John Grisham’s books are good only for wanking into: “I ejaculated between two pages with a groan of satisfaction. They were going to stick together; didn’t matter, it wasn’t the kind of book you read twice.” But Agatha Christie receives two pages of adulation, mainly for her novel “The Hollow,” in which she makes clear that she understands “the sin of despair.” This is “the sin of cutting oneself off from all warm and living human contacts”—which is, of course, the sin of Michel. “It is in our relations with other people,” he remarks, “that we gain a sense of ourselves; it’s that, pretty much, that makes relations with other people unbearable.” Further: “Giving up on life . . . is the easiest thing a person can do”; and “Anything can happen in life, especially nothing.”
The sin of despair is compounded when the sufferer is a hedonist. “Platform” is concerned with tourism, sex, and the combination of the two. Tourism is considered the biggest single industry on the planet, a pure locus of supply and deliberately massaged demand. One key appeal for the novelist is tourism’s psychology: not least the central, Flaubertian irony whereby anticipation and remembrance (the brochure’s false promise of happiness, the holiday snap’s grinning lie) often prove more vivid and reliable than the moment itself. One key danger for the novelist—not always avoided here—is that of easy satire: tourists make soft targets not just for terrorists.
Houellebecq sends Michel off on a sun-and-sex vacation; his largely crass companions include the acceptable, indeed positively attractive Valérie, who works for a travel agency. Much of the immediate plot turns on her attempts and those of her colleague Jean-Yves to revive an ailing branch of the corporation they work for. This is all adequately done, though Houellebecq’s strengths and interests as a writer are not particularly those of traditional narrative. His approach to a scene, and a theme, often reminds me of a joke current in Euro circles. A British delegate to some E.U. committee outlines his country’s proposals, which, being British, are typically pragmatic, sensible, and detailed. The French delegate reflects noddingly on them for a considerable period of time, before delivering judgment: “Well, I can see that the plan will work in practice, but will it work in theory?”
Thus the primary, obvious link between sex and tourism is the carnal, interpersonal (and impersonal) one. But just as important for Houellebecq is to find the theoretical connection. Which he does: both sex and tourism exemplify the free market at its most free. Sex has always appeared capitalistic to Houellebecq. Here is his formulation from his first novel, “Whatever”:
In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a totally liberal economic system certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude.
This kind of swift, audacious linkage is Houellebecq at his best; he loves nothing more than working over what in “The Elementary Particles” he called “the libidinal, hedonistic American option.” But his actual writing about sex in “Platform” is curiously both pornographic and sentimental. Pornographic in the sense of taking all its moves and images from pornography (who put what where and moved it whither, until a convulsive spurt-’n’-groan); also, written like pornography of a decent, middle-ranking kind (the translation, throughout, is exemplary). Sentimental in that the novel’s really nice, straightforward characters are Oriental masseuses and prostitutes, who are presented as being without flaws, diseases, pimps, addictions, or hangups. Pornographic and sentimental in that nothing ever goes wrong with the sexual act: pneumatic bliss is always obtained, no one ever says “No” or “Stop” or even “Wait,” and you just have to beckon to a non-white-skinned maid on the hotel terrace for her to pop into the room, quickly reveal that she is braless, and slide seamlessly into a threesome. Houellebecq sees through everything in the world except commercial sex, which he describes—perhaps appropriately—like one who believes every word and picture of a holiday brochure.
And then there is love. “I really love women,” Michel tells us on the opening page. Later, he elaborates: “My enthusiasm for pussy” is one of “my few remaining recognizable, fully human qualities.” Despite “loving women,” Michel pointedly never refers to his mother. And when this depressed, old-at-forty sex tourist gradually finds himself becoming involved with Valérie, you wonder how Houellebecq will handle it. After all, it is a piece of literary insolence to make such a character fall in love in the first place. So how is love different for Michel from commercial sex? Happily, not very. Valérie, though at first she appears rather dowdy and browbeaten, turns out to have wonderful breasts; she is as good in bed as a Thai prostitute, and she doesn’t just go along with threesomes—she instigates them. She is by nature docile, yet she holds down a good job and is very well paid; like Michel, she scorns designer clothes. And that’s about it, really. They don’t do any of that old stuff like talking about feelings, or thinking about them; they don’t go out much together, though he does take her to a wife-swap bar and an S & M club. He does a spot of cooking; she is often so tired from work that it isn’t until the next morning that she can give him a blow job. This is less insolent than fictionally disappointing. Oh, and Valérie has to die, of course, just when she has found happiness and the couple have decided to live on a paradise island. The setup, and execution, of this would have been improved upon by Grisham or Forsyth.
Why, to go back to the start, does Michel hate his father so? This is one question a normally inquisitive reader might ask after that coffinside denunciation. What do we learn of this “old bastard,” this “clever cunt,” this “moron in shorts,” this “hideously representative element” of the twentieth century? That he was over seventy when he died, that Aïcha was “very fond” of him, that he exercised a lot and owned a Toyota Land Cruiser. Hardly grounds enough, you might think. But we also learn, further on, that this monster was once struck down by a sudden, inexplicable depression. “His mountaineering friends had stood around awkwardly, powerless in the face of the disease. The reason he immersed himself in sports, he once told me, was to stupefy himself, to stop himself from thinking.” This is all new (we hadn’t been told before that the father was a mountaineer); and you might think, since Michel is himself depressed, that it might have been reason for sympathy. But this is all we get, and the father swiftly disappears from the narrative, as he does from Michel’s thoughts.
Within the novel, the filial hatred is just an inexplicable given. But in an interview Houellebecq gave a few years ago in the magazine Lire he says that his parents abandoned him when he was five, leaving him in the care of a grandmother. “My father developed early on a sense of excessive guilt,” Houellebecq says. “He once told me the strangest thing: that he devoted himself to intense physical activity so much because it stopped him thinking. He was a mountain guide.”
No reason why this strange confession shouldn’t be used by a novelist; but if it is to work it needs to be supported fictionally. In “Platform,” the slippage between Michel R. and Michel H. is more serious than this bit of autobiographical leaching might suggest. There are problems with the narrative, officially a first-person account by Michel R., but one that (insolently?—well, anyway, unjustifiedly) dodges into the third person if it needs to tell us what only Michel H. can know. (There is even an incompetent moment when Michel R. gives us his judgment on a character he hasn’t yet met.) Within Michel himself, there is also some curious slippage. Thus he sets off on holiday with “two American best-sellers that I’d bought pretty much at random at the airport” (this despite feeling de haut en bas about Forsyth and Grisham); he also has the Guide du Routard. Fair enough for a sex tourist, you may think. Later, a little surprisingly, he panics at the thought of having nothing to read. Later still, back home, he turns out to be an assiduous reader of Auguste Comte and Milan Kundera; he also quotes confidently from Kant, Schopenhauer, and social theoreticians. Is this credibly the same character, or is it someone shifting to meet the needs of the moment?
The sense of Houellebecq’s being a clever man who is a less than clever novelist obtrudes most in the novel’s dealings with Islam. Structurally, the function of what Michel calls the “absurd religion” appears to be to deliver, at the end, an extreme and murderous disapproval of the happy sex tourists. Its running presence, however, consists in a trio of outbursts. The first is from Aïcha, who launches unasked into a denunciation of her Mecca-stupefied father and her useless brothers (“They get blind drunk on pastis and all the while they strut around pretending to be the guardians of the one true faith, and they treat me like a slut because I prefer to go out and work rather than marry some stupid bastard like them”). Next, there is an Egyptian once encountered by Michel in the Valley of the Kings, an immensely cultivated and intelligent genetic engineer, for whom Muslims are “the losers of the Sahara” and Islam a religion born among “filthy Bedouin” who did nothing but “bugger their camels.” Then, there is a Jordanian banker met in Bangkok, who in the course of a general denunciation points out that the sexual paradise promised to Islamic martyrs is much more cheaply obtainable in any hotel massage parlor. Extraordinary that three casual meetings on three different continents should turn up three vociferous Arab Islam-despisers who disappear from the narrative immediately their work is done. This isn’t so much an author with his thumb on the scales as one clambering into the weighing pan and doing a tap dance. (Book-chat parenthesis: Houellebecq told Lire that his mother had become a Muslim, adding, “I can’t bear Islam.”)
Before I started reading this novel, a friend gave me an unexpected warning: “There’s a scene where the narrator and his girlfriend and another woman have a threesome in the hammam at the thalassotherapy center in Dinard.” His tone hardening, he went on, “Well, I’ve been there, and it’s just not possible.” He is not a pedantic man, and his attitude surprised me. But now I quite understand it. Fictional insolence is a high-risk venture; it must, as “The Elementary Particles” did, take you by the ear and brain and frogmarch you, convince you with the force of its rhetoric and the rigor of its despair. It should allow no time for reactions like Hang on, that’s not true; or Surely, people aren’t that bad; or even Actually, I’d like to think this one over. “Platform,” fuelled more by opinions and riffs and moments of provocation than by thorough narrative, allows such questionings to enter the reader’s head far too often. Is sex like this? Is love like this? Are Muslims like this? Is humanity like this? Is Michel depressed, or is the world depressing? Camus, who began by creating in Meursault one of the most disaffected characters in postwar fiction, ended by writing “The First Man,” in which ordinary lives are depicted with the richest observation and sympathy. The trajectory of Houellebecq’s world view will be worth following.
The Sydney Morning Herald
June 28 2003
His shocking books reveal total disdain for ideals and modern life. But has Michel Houellebecq found something to look forward to?
Lanzarote, by Michel Houellebecq, is published by William Heinemann, $27.95
At a time when publishers seem more reluctant than ever to issue translations of French writers - recent books by Patrick Grainville and Jean Rouaud come to mind - the fame Michel Houellebecq has achieved in the English-language world in a mere three years is remarkable.
When Atomised, a translation of Les Particules elementaires of 1999, was published in 2000, the author of this pugnacious and idiosyncratic novel (who has exiled himself to a remote part of Ireland) was practically unknown outside France. And even in France the large part of his readership was confined to a cult following among younger people - cynical, often deracinated, young Europeans contemptuous of the shibboleths and pieties of the past, but apparently uninterested in seeking ideals or beliefs to replace them. The French literary establishment barely deigned to notice Houellebecq. Here was (in their view) a vulgar, artless writer who beguiled the young with his modish ennui, his fondness for extended and clinical descriptions of amazing sexual feats, his machine-gun sentences, his disdain for high culture and his lack of interest in anything that might confer literary value on his writing.
Three years on, Houellebecq's is a name to conjure with. He has broken out of the ghetto of translated authors. Platform, a novel first published in 2001, became something of a best-seller when a translation was released late last year. Part of that success was due, no doubt, to Houellebecq's horrible prescience in making his fable of self-indulgent Western amorality end with a massacre by Islamic terrorists in a holiday-cum-sex resort in Thailand. Nevertheless, the success of that shocking novel drew new readers to Atomised and even to Whatever, a translation of Houellebecq's first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte, which made hardly any impact when it was originally released in English.
No better confirmation of his allure can be found, however, than the publication next week of a translation of Lanzarote, a novella published in Paris last year. It's a slight, though fascinating, work of a kind which, with another writer, might never have been translated.
The mixture is the same as before. In December 1999, the narrator - a bored, depressed bureaucrat (like almost all of Houellebecq's protagonists) - decides he cannot endure another dreary New Year's Eve in Paris. So, against his better judgement, he allows a travel agent to talk him into a package tour to Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands, where, she half-heartedly assures him, you can swim in January. The place turns out to be a wash-out. The hotel is commonplace, the town characterless, the volcanic landscape uninteresting, the other tourists either bores or poseurs, or both.
But there is Rudi, an almost catatonic policeman from Brussels, who is a native of Luxembourg and convinced that Belgium is the most awful place in the world, and Barbara and Pam, two cheerful lesbians - but not exclusively so, they assure the narrator - from Germany. The four hire a car and drive around the island. They find a deserted beach, where the narrator engages in complicated sexual rituals with the Germans while Rudi looks on glumly.
They go on with their acrobatics back at the hotel. There is a suggestion the narrator might care to father a child with one of the Germans, but nothing comes of it. Meanwhile, Rudi vanishes, having decided (it turns out) to join a religious cult located on the island. The others go home. A little later, the narrator learns that Rudi was implicated in a Belgian pedophile scandal.
Houellebecq uses this almost perfunctory material to display his familiar preoccupations. Here are diatribes against the vapidity of mass tourism, against the inanities of contemporary French writers, against left-wing do-gooders and New-Age freaks. Feats of erotic ingenuity are described with the same clinical detachment as in Atomised and Platform. The same sense of a meaningless life, of the pursuit of unachievable pleasure, suffuses this tale of a depressing holiday.
Houellebecq's appeal for an ever-increasing readership is difficult to pinpoint. Inevitably perhaps, commentators like to stress the ubiquitous obsession with mechanical sex, the distractions of mindless tourism and the allure of "shopping" (Houellebecq is fond of using this recently Frenchified English word) as indicators of a fundamental moral stance. These shocking, at times even disgusting, narratives, constantly circling around a handful of topics, seem to be impregnated with a sense of outrage at the decadence of the contemporary West, its lack of all but the most crassly materialistic values.
That Houellebecq's novels are informed by some kind of morality is beyond doubt. The nature and implications of that morality are open to question, however. In some ways, like many ultra-conservatives (with whom he has something in common), he seems to yearn for the standards of an earlier time, before the corrosion of unbridled individualism and commercialism ate away at society's fabric. Though there is some evidence for an inclination like that in Atomised and Platform, and even in Lanzarote, the emphasis laid on it by some critics seems largely misplaced. If any morality energises Houellebecq's sensibility, it is the morality of nihilism.
The extent of his contempt for every aspect of contemporary life, and also for any possible alternative, cannot be exaggerated. In his fiction, such acedia may seem to be located merely in the sensibilities of his characters - many of whom are called Michel. However, in his essays and journalism (which have not been published in English) he expresses the same bleak disillusion without any qualification. In one essay, he describes himself as one "who ordinarily spits on money, the freedom of the individual, human rights, representative democracy and non-smoking areas". "Literature is useless," he announces elsewhere. "Marxists, anarchists, existentialists and leftists of all kinds" have not influenced one jot the history of the 20th century.
The most thorough confession of his beliefs - if they can be called beliefs - comes in the strangest of his books, which is yet to be translated into English. H.P. Lovecraft, Against the World, Against Life (as it would be called in English) was published in 1991 and reissued in 1999. It commemorates the eccentric and reclusive New England writer of fantasy stories, who died in 1937, aged 47, and became after his death the centre of an enthusiastic cult, not the least in France. But, as a preface to the 1999 reissue makes clear, Houellebecq's paean is as much an apologia for himself as a celebration of Lovecraft.
He gives a concise account of what appeals to him in Lovecraft: the disdain for modern life. One remark on Lovecraft's literary procedures identifies his own methods: "The more the events and entities grow monstrous and inconceivable, the more precise and clinical are the ways he describes them." This is particularly true, he says, of Lovecraft's anti-eroticism. The erotic seems to have played no part in the life of that descendant of New England puritans, but his whole existence (according to Houellebecq) was governed by the kind of nauseated fascination with the erotic that Houellebecq himself reveals.
That, among other things, accounts for the chief attributes of Lovecraft's nightmarish fantasies: fear, loathing and terror, the acknowledgement of absolute evil. Lovecraft's racism, his hatred of Jews and blacks, which grew out of the few years he spent in New York, is a natural consequence, Houellebecq insists, of that fear, of the sense of the imminence of uncontrollable evil. This seems to be very close to Houellebecq's notorious loathing for Islam and everything Islamic.
So, for Lovecraft, the future, as much as the present, is entirely devoid of hope or sense:
"The universe is only a furtive arrangement of elementary particles [particules elementaires, as in the original title of Atomised]. A presage of transition to chaos. Which will carry it away in the end. The human race will disappear. Other races will appear and disappear in turn. The sky will become icy and void, pierced by the feeble light of half-dead stars. Which will also disappear. Everything will disappear. And what human beings do is just as free of sense as the free motion of elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, feelings? Pure 'Victorian fictions'. Only egotism exists."
This is equally the model of the universe in Houellebecq's fiction, and also in his restrained, almost icy, poems. The joyless sexual rituals at nudist colonies, in sex clubs and cramped Parisian apartments, or on the beaches of Thailand or Lanzarote, are only the meaningless dance of subatomic particles. Every time one of his characters seems to discover the possibility of love, it is snatched away - by cancer, suicide and a senseless accident in Atomised; by Islamic fundamentalism in Platform.
It is nevertheless possible to detect a modicum of hope - ambiguous and perhaps illusory - in Houellebecq's writings, which is embodied, in a peculiar way, in Lanzarote. Rudi abandons his prepaid holiday to become a member of the Raelians, the cult which recently claimed to have perfected the first human clone in the same way as mankind, according to the cult's theology, was the product of cloning by extraterrestrial beings.
The absurdities and unsavoury aspects of the cult come in for their fair share of contempt in Lanzarote. Here is another instance of idiocy in the world, of the inane vanity of human wishes. Yet this may be something of a smokescreen. For all his nihilism and contempt for ideals, Houellebecq might just believe that if there is any chance of salvation for the species, it can only emerge from the mechanical reproduction of life.
Hints of that may be discerned in Atomised, where the story of late-20th-century nullity is told from the perspective of a later race of higher beings: "Having broken the final chain that linked us to humanity, we live on. Men consider us to be happy; it is certainly true that we have succeeded in overcoming the monstrous egotism, cruelty and anger which they could not; we live very different lives." But some of Houellebecq's essays, particularly in their celebration of science fiction as the only worthwhile literature the 20th century produced, provide the most fascinating clues.
One essay in particular, Consolation technique (Technical Consolation), contains as clear a statement as we are likely to have from this most devious of writers. "I do not like myself," it begins, "still less do I have any self-esteem; moreover, I am not much interested in myself." But he feels a curious satisfaction - love may be too strong a word - where his son is concerned. Especially because he sees so much of himself replicated in the child. Nevertheless, the thought that the boy might assume a certain autonomy and (worse still) replicate some of his mother's characteristics is a source of considerable displeasure. The choice seems obvious:
"I will have myself cloned as soon as possible. I will probably have two or three clones made. I will ensure my clones a good education, then I will die. I will die without pleasure, for I do not want to die; however, until the contrary is proved, I am obliged to. By means of my clones I will have attained a certain kind of survival - not entirely satisfactory, but superior to what children can bring. That is the maximum, up until now, that Western technology could offer me."
Is this perhaps the secret message of the most outrageous writer of our time?
30/06/03 - Books section
Group sex on a
By David Sexton, Literary Editor, Evening Standard
Anbody interested in contemporary literature should read Michel Houellebecq's novels Atomized (1998) and Platform (2001). They are the most scathing accounts of Western society to have appeared in our time.
Houellebecq (pronounced Wellbeck) is a writer without shame or moderation. He goes right to the core. Every page he writes focuses on the emptiness of Western materialism, the savage equation between sexuality and death that our freedom has exposed to us, the way that liberty brings us not happiness but suffering.
But he is equally harsh about other cultures and the founding monotheisms, notoriously Islam (he stood trial in Paris last year for having called Islam "the most stupid religion").
Lanzarote is pretty much for Houellebecqian completists only, though. It was first published in France in 2000, between Atomized and Platform, in an expensive limited edition containing prints of 24 photographs of the island by Houellebecq.
It is now available in a cheap edition (Lanzarote et autres textes, Librio, e1.52 ) accompanied by some brilliant essays, about cloning, sex-clubs, and so on. Unfortunately, this English version gives us the novella - a scant 80 pages only - plus some of the pictures of Lanzarote's arid landscapes.
On the eve of the millennium, the depressed narrator books a week's package holiday, more or less at random, on Lanzarote. There he takes to the paucity of tourist attractions, the starkness of the environment - "the conflict, so evident in Lanzarote, between two great forces: the volcano's creation and the sea's destruction."
He joins forces with Rudi, a miserable police inspector from Brussels, and a pair of liberated German lesbians, Pam and Barbara, with whom he is soon enjoying friendly group sex (fondly detailed by our author), which makes him as happy as Larry.
Rudi, however, is too wretched to participate. Instead, he joins a weird religious sect, the Azraelians, who believe aliens are coming to Earth to clone the faithful.
The next we hear of him he is standing trial, with other cult members, accused of paedophilia.
Lanzarote is little more than a minor variation on the themes of Platform, most worth reading for a few characteristically sardonic asides.
"Norwegians are translucent; exposed to the sun, they die almost immediately," for example. Or: "Fat and prickly, the cactus symbolises perfectly - not to put too fine a point on it - the abjectness of plant life."
The translation is fluent - although is "absurd" a true rendering of the word "merdique" (calculatedly applied once more to Islam)?
Condensed in the style of the original
Monday July 7, 2003
Midway through December 1999, I realised New Year was going to be disastrous - again.
"How about southern Morocco?" said the travel agent. I knew Morocco a lot better than this bitch.
"I don't like Arab countries," I interrupted, before thinking back to the wetness of the Lebanese woman I'd met at a swingers' club.
"I mean," I continued, "I don't like Muslim countries."
"How about Senegal?"
It was tempting. The white man is still king there and you don't have to pay for sex.
"I'm not up for sex."
"How about Lanzarote?"
Lanzarote is almost totally devoid of interest, having been discovered by a few Norwegians back in the 50s. You don't see them any more as they die when the sun comes out. The ordinary Frenchman runs the risk of boredom here - not something that would concern the limited minds of the Brits and the Krauts.
On the minibus trip, I noticed a dull moustachioed Belgian and a pair of German dykes. I like women licking each other. The dykes were called Pam and Barbara and I watched them play in the waves. Barbara's breasts were the most pert: they were probably silicon.
"Nice tits," I said, playing with myself.
I watched TV in the hotel. The Yanks were taking over the world again. Being governed by fucking idiots is utterly disagreeable.
I didn't see Rudi the next day. He had gone to Fuerteventura.
"It was shit," he said later, as we passed several members of the Azraelian sect.
"By the way, I only live in Belgium," he said. "I was born in Luxembourg." A country of tax evaders.
The next day we went to the beach with the dykes. Rudi disappeared, while I serviced the two women.
"You lick almost as well as a woman," said Pam. "Maybe you could impregnate Barbara."
"I'm French," I replied. "I can do anything."
Rudi was gone when we got back and I found this letter.
"I wasn't shocked by you and the dykes. My wife and I had the odd orgy until she returned to the monstrous hordes of Islam. It's just I hate being a cop and I hate living in Belgium. I'm going to join the Azraelians."
Back home I never saw the dykes again, but I followed the Azraelians in the papers - especially when the child abuse scandal broke in Belgium. Rudi got arrested as all Belgians look like paedophiles.
Hmm, I thought, as I reached page 87. Have I been assez shocking? Perhaps non. Still, stopping here and charging a tenner should piss off almost everyone.
The digested read ... digested
Mozzers, Brits, Krauts, Yanks, Belgians and Dagos. Now, can I lick you?
By JENNY TURNER
By Michel Houellebecq.
Translated by Frank Wynne.
259 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $25
Michel Houellebecq is an ugly writer, vulgar, often silly, sex-obsessed. His heroes are unprepossessing loners, eaters of junk food and watchers of far too much television, and generally, egotistically, they are named Michel. His settings are dreary suburban offices and studio apartments, with the addition, in the present novel, of airports, planes and holiday resorts in Thailand. The sex, the politics, the theorizing are inexorable, and often unpleasant and extreme: in his current volume, strong views are expressed on topics like interracial sexual attraction, Islam, Cuba and leisure marketing in developing countries. ''All humanity instinctively tends toward miscegenation'' -- this is one of the more striking apercus in ''Platform'' -- and ''the only person, however, to have pushed the process to its logical conclusion is Michael Jackson.'' ''What does God compare to?'' -- and here is another one. The answer: a woman's private parts, of course, ''but also perhaps the vapors of a Turkish bath.''
Which is why, as will I hope be apparent, Houellebecq can also be a terrific writer, funny and prophetic, more feverishly alive to the world around him than are many authors more tasteful, less offensive, less willing to take risks. His first novel, ''L'Extension du Domaine de la Lutte'' -- curtly renamed ''Whatever'' in its English translation -- gave startling voice to a new sort of Frenchman, a 21st-century version of the old-style Russian superfluous man, overeducated, overpaid and bored rancid by his nonexistent love life. His second, ''The Elementary Particles,'' was even more rancorous and misanthropic, and ruthlessly captured the range and confusion of our civilization's most up-to-the-minute griefs and dreads. Why do we feel so bad all the time -- is it our genes, or cancer, or collagen? Is it monotheism, or our parents, or the collapse into self-indulgence of the dreams of the 1960's?
Houellebecq's third novel, ''Platform,'' was published in France in 2001. This Michel is 40, and shortly after his father's murder (by a North African man, thus inducing some weary parodying of Camus) he decides to go global, dragging his decadent European self around Thailand on a package tour. There, he happens upon two important revelations. Crowd-watching in Patong, he sees handsome Australians, German lesbians and Arabs in kaffiyeh renting the attentions of cheap young Asian women. Sex tourism, he realizes, is the service industry to end all service industries, and as such, a key to the future of the world. Then he meets Valerie, a pretty young Frenchwoman with a high-flying job in the travel business. Remarkably, Valerie turns out to be ''a radiant exception'': a Western woman who not only enjoys sex and gives it freely but for some reason wants especially to give it to Michel.
And so, by way of many sex scenes, we come to the central argument of the book. What with their increased prosperity, education and so on, Western women no longer want anything to do with the average plain and boring little Western man, and what with their concomitant neuroses, insecurity and baggage, they are no longer capable of merely enjoying sex. Women in developing countries, on the other hand, still think of sex as life's great free gift, and are frankly overjoyed to get their hands on a nice chap willing to pay them for it. It's a global economy version of the Modest Proposal: the money-spinning potential is ''almost unimaginable, vastly more than from computers or biotechnology,'' as Michel says. Michel and Valerie team up, as lovers and as colleagues, planning to transform the tourist industry with their chain of sex resorts. It all goes swimmingly, and with an added bonus: Valerie and Michel really do seem, in their own profane and rather pathetic way, to fall in love.
Now obviously, the picture of sex tourism presented in this novel is a caricature, grotesquely idealized. And yet Houellebecq is also onto something real and true and awful about 21st-century men and women, abandon and repression and rich countries and poor countries in the brave new global world. ''Like all of the inhabitants of Western Europe, I want to travel,'' Michel says. ''What I really want, basically, is to be a tourist. We dream what dreams we can afford.'' In his sympathetic translation, Frank Wynne has wittily asterisked and italicized all the words that appeared in English in the original French text: breakfast coupons, body massage, go-go bars, fun, dress code, gay-friendly, topless, coffee shop, ghetto blaster. They do not make the international leisure industry sound edifying, and I don't think this is entirely Houellebecq's fault.
But Houellebecq's ideas unravel around the aspect of the novel that has attracted the most attention -- its lambasting of Islam, a civilization, like that of Europe, precariously poised on the major fault lines of our time. This is a book that, although published long before Bali and just before 9/11, contains within it a vicious bomb attack by a gang of Muslim terrorists on a beach resort in Thailand. And this is a book that contains within it several equally vicious anti-Muslim rants. ''Muslims on the whole aren't worth much,'' the narrator mutters, then has a vision of ''migratory flows crisscrossing Europe like blood vessels, in which Muslims appeared as clots that were only slowly reabsorbed.'' ''Do you know what I call Muslims? The losers of the Sahara,'' a friendly Egyptian man is wheeled in for a scene to say.
Now, it is possible to imagine how a courageous writer might build some sort of tense, dynamic structure within which global tourism, sexual frustration and the lovelessness of the West were indeed counterposed with the emergence of radical Islam. And once or twice in ''Platform'' Houellebecq starts to have an almost-interesting thought. For example, a kindly Jordanian banker pops up to tell us that Islam is doomed because capitalism has hijacked its most holy imagery and turned it into tourist schlock: ''The problem with Muslims . . . was that the paradise promised by the Prophet already existed here on earth. There were places on earth where young, available, lascivious girls danced for the pleasure of men, where one could become drunk on nectar and listen to celestial music; there were about 20 of them within 500 meters of our hotel.''
But to investigate such ideas properly would take more work, it seems, than Houellebecq was prepared to do. In ''The Elementary Particles,'' shrewd links were proposed between sexual liberation and spiritual emptiness, Judeo-Christianity and genetic manipulation. But the attack on Islam in ''Platform,'' I'm afraid, pivots around such lazy prejudices as that it is a religion ''born in a stupid desert, among filthy Bedouin'' who had nothing better to do than have sex with their camels. In ''The Elementary Particles,'' the speculative arc that begins in seemingly routine accounts of molecular biology is so cunningly put together that it becomes impossible to pinpoint where science fact gives way, sublimely, to what the author calls a ''metaphysical mutation.'' In ''Platform,'' the attacks on religion are contained in unintegrated slabs of rant.
IS it fair to demand of novels that they be articulate and reasonable, that they attempt in some way to make the world a better place? If so, ''Platform'' is a disaster, poorly organized and incoherent and rather crass. Its notion that swinging sex is somehow redemptive is the stuff not even of adult fantasy -- it is too naive, too embarrassingly infantile, for that. Its politics are reactionary and xenophobic -- that Houellebecq doesn't think much of his own countrymen either isn't much of a defense -- and the annoying way that most of the nasty digs at Muslims are put in the mouths of friendly Arabs is reminiscent of no one so much as Pim Fortuyn, the anti-immigration Dutch politician who famously asserted, shortly before his assassination last year, that far from hating Arabs, he liked sleeping with them. Racism, like everything else, has shifted its shape with the changing world order, and is as likely these days to come in a libertine wrapper as any other.
Is it fair to demand of novels that they be articulate and reasonable -- or is it as important, sometimes, that what they are trying to say is real and new? If nothing else, ''Platform'' makes an imaginative purchase on an undeniably actual strand of thought in turn-of-the-century Europe, a continent that feels itself, as ''The Elementary Particles'' puts it, to be ''sliding slowly, ineluctably, into the ranks of the less developed countries.'' ''In most circumstances in my life,'' Michel confesses at one point, ''I have had about as much freedom as has a vacuum cleaner'' -- not a noble thought, or one that lends much hope to the future. But it is apt and it is funny, and it is, unfortunately, likely to be true.
Jenny Turner is a member of the editorial board of The London Review of Books.
Despair, hope, sex and exploitation share 'Platform'
Reviewed by Max Winter
Sunday, July 20, 2003
By Michel Houellebecq
KNOPF; 272 PAGES; $25
Although Michel Houellebecq's characters are as horny and maladjusted in "Platform" as they were in his previous novel, "The Elementary Particles," his new book marks a step away from facile nihilism toward a worldview that, while despairing, includes warmth and happiness within it. While emotionally unavailable Michel and hopeless satyr Bruno felt visceral pleasure and visceral pain in "Particles," "Platform" takes its anti-hero on a full ride from loneliness to ecstasy to, sadly, loneliness once again. This arc is gratifying, despite the callousness of the novel's backdrop: a plan to build a sex-tourism industry in developing countries.
The plan is hatched out of a mix of two similarly lusty minds. Shortly after the death of his father, Michel, a Ministry of Culture bureaucrat, goes on a tour of Thailand to clear his head. He nurtures either mild sexual interest or contempt for the other travelers, and little interest in the world around him outside of hopping sex clubs, but Valerie, a tourist-industry mogul's ace executive assistant, catches his eye.
There are few sparks between them on the actual tour, but less than a week afterward, the two have a sexually and emotionally fulfilling reunion, leading to romance and all the affection it entails (along with all the sweaty, plainly described sex). Despite the prurient, politically incorrect and obnoxious thoughts that bop through his brain (along with booze and drugs of various kinds), the fact that Michel actually feels something -- an unusual occurrence in the emotionally muted world of Houellebecq -- looms large. At one point, Michel even admits vulnerability, asking Valerie why she finds him attractive, to which she responds that his uncertainty itself is attractive. True love.
The novel steers into slightly riskier and more exploitive waters after Michel accompanies Valerie on a trip to Cuba with Valerie's boss, Jean-Yves. And what a trip it is: strangers, passing acquaintances, the hotel help -- everyone seems to want to roll in the hay. Jean-Yves has just become the head of a division of the world's largest hotel chain, which is seeking to change its image and boost its revenue. While in Cuba, Michel and Valerie sell Jean- Yves on a plan to start a series of sex tours, using the chain as guests' primary accommodation; they are guaranteed a workforce in developing countries, where financial need encourages sexual adventurousness. The plan finds a willing audience and seems to be on the verge of success when tragedy strikes at the opening of a hotel in Krabi, Thailand.
Although the characters in this book endure unimaginable heartbreak along with their happiness, it's sometimes hard to think that they didn't have it coming. The characters in "Platform" are detestable, much like those in "The Elementary Particles." Michel is an empty soul with little ambition; he's seemingly affable in conversation, but a contemptuous comment is never far from his lips. And the hatred he expresses, particularly toward the Arab world (of which much has been made in the British press), is loathsome, if also human. Jean-Yves enters the novel almost pitiably, trapped in a bad marriage, locked into a dysfunctional relationship with his children. But after separating from his wife, he satisfies what Houellebecq knows his readers consider to be the stereotype of the coldhearted executive, dispassionately starting a sex industry in a hotel chain and boffing his 15-year-old baby sitter. Valerie seems the most likable of the characters -- scrupulous, responsible, desirous only of a healthy and sexy relationship -- yet Houellebecq is determined to dash her dreams. But what is wrong with this? Why should literature not be as cruel as life itself?
Of course, the book's events only become more moving as we begin to inhabit the book's "I." Houellebecq has made a technical move here that is symbolic, though it might seem to dwell strictly in the domain of grammar. "Particles" offered us its two main figures in a removed third person: "Bruno" and "Michel" became emblems of character types, of growths on the face of a seemingly self-alienated society. This book offers us an "I" that we can relate to -- hate, love, fear -- without being pointedly obstructed by the author's tormented cosmology.
Where scientific discussions of animal habits filled "Particles," the outward sign of the author's detachment, this book throws at us with alarming regularity phrases of academic sociopolitical jargon: "I was living in a country distinguished by a placid socialism" is the start of one sentence, and Jean-Yves recalls being attracted to his wife originally because (among other things), "The emergence of American-style judicial proceedings in France did not seem to her to be a regression." And this satire of the human need to academicize everything, from sex to death, echoes the vision of the book as a whole. In a world where passion and the lack of passion may be shaded deeply by their fiscal accoutrements, language games become of quintessential importance. In fact, they may be the only certain thing remaining.
Max Winter's reviews have appeared in the Washington Post, the Denver Post and Newsday.
By JANET MASLIN
The cover photograph on Michel Houellebecq's new novel depicts a faceless person walking on all fours in an otherwise unspoiled, watery wilderness. This presents an idea of how the author regards the human condition.
"On the whole, I am not good, it is not one of my character traits. Humanitarians disgust me, the fate of others is generally a matter of indifference to me, nor have I any memory of ever having felt any sense of `solidarity' with other human beings."
Bristling with the misanthropy that has gained him renown as a bête noire in France (or at least a bête), Mr. Houellebecq, the author of "The Elementary Particles," now turns his attention to the poisonous effects of Western culture in the rest of the world. To the extent that the new work, "Platform," anticipates the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the terrorist attack on tourists in Bali (it was published in France two years ago), Mr. Houellebecq's cautionary message becomes at least as potent as his scorn.
"My dreams are run-of-the-mill."
The book's protagonist, also named Michel, is a real sweetheart: a self-loathing bureaucrat living a life of near-perfect emptiness. His father, "a moron in shorts," has been brutally murdered as the novel begins. But this seems to interest Michel only insofar as it provides him with an inheritance and enables him to travel. Otherwise, the only aspect of life that animates him is lust. "In fact, I saw in it one of my few remaining recognizable, fully human qualities. As for the rest, I really didn't know anymore," he says.
"In the bathroom mirror, I contemplated myself disgustedly. My anxious bureaucratic face clashed horribly with what I was wearing, and I looked exactly like what I was: a forty-something civil servant on vacation, trying to pretend he's young."
Michel embarks on a package tour to Thailand, carefully noting the unattractiveness of most of his companions. But he is drawn to Valérie, a young woman who works in the travel industry and finds Michel unaccountably tempting. Soon he has transferred his erotic yearnings from the racier pages of a John Grisham novel to her. In a plot development far too sentimental for the book's overriding contempt, Michel falls hard. Mr. Houellebecq is thus able to supply frequent mechanically pornographic passages in which these two experience wild sexual abandon. The earth moves, inevitably.
"There are some things that one can do, others that seem too difficult. Gradually, everything becomes too difficult: that's what life comes down to."
Although "Platform" is mostly a string of essay-ready peregrinations on darkening world affairs and dismal human nature, its plot does center on the travel industry as a microcosm of destructiveness. Michel and Valérie become increasingly interested in what they begin to call "friendly tourism" — the kind in which well-heeled Westerners visit third-world countries and pay impoverished new "friends" to have sex. The book is at its most successfully ominous in recording these characters' obliviousness to the potential devastating consequences of their business plan.
"Anything can happen in life, especially nothing."
While "Platform" is clearly serious in its horror at such exploitation, it is dangerously ambiguous in other regards. Michel's misanthropy is mingled with a casual racism and a scorn for the Muslim world, not to mention his loathing of anyone he deems physically unattractive. In these regards, it is never clear where Mr. Houellebecq's unalloyed opinions leave off and the presumably artfully imagined ones of his protagonist begin. "Platform" would be a better novel if its central character had a life — any life — of his own.
"I was perfectly adapted to the information age — that is to say, good for nothing."
In this book, which takes its title from the characters' proposal to reinvent the world of sex tourism, Mr. Houellebecq's chic petulance and abundant salaciousness become part and parcel of his philosophy. This makes for a polarizing, audacious document rather than a viable novel. To call this a book of ideas is to dodge the fact that it is not truly a book of narrative progress, drama, change, conflict or insight. No doubt the author would regard these as worthless attributes anyhow.
"To the end, I will remain a child of Europe, of worry and of shame. I have no message of hope to deliver. For the West, I do not feel hatred. At most I feel a great contempt. I know only that every single one of us reeks of selfishness, masochism and death. We have created a system in which it has simply become impossible to live, and what's more, we continue to export it."
This passage, and others like it, have earned Mr. Houellebecq the status of conversation piece, agent provocateur and savage messiah. The full, acidic, self-flagellating cachet of "Platform," its posturing as well as its terrible prescience, can be found above.
POSTED AT 1:28 PM EDT Friday, Jul. 25, 2003
By Michel Houellebecq
Translated by Frank Wynne
Knopf, 259 pages, $38
Author Michel Houellebecq's latest novel, Platform, his third after the acclaimed Elementary Particles, comes to our shielded country pre-stirred with controversy, known as the book brought to court with Houellebecq when he was accused of "inciting racial hatred" in his native France in 2002. Was he tried for the line in Platform, "On an intellectual level, I was suddenly capable of acknowledging the attractions of the Muslim vagina"? No, uh, actually it was for commenting ever-so-succinctly to the French press that he believed Islam to be the "dumbest religion," and for a similar refrain throughout Platform, summarized infamously by the bereaved narrator, conveniently named Michel, who says, after all his closest ties to humanity have been destroyed by Muslims, "Every time I heard that a Palestinian child or a pregnant Palestinian woman had been gunned down in the Gaza Strip, I felt a quiver of enthusiasm at the thought of one less Muslim in the world."
Although too few French intellectuals sighed with relief, they should have, because Houellebecq won the case. "There cannot be fences erected around ideas, philosophies, attitudes or beliefs," wrote Salman Rushdie in Houellebecq's defence. Taste the bitter irony of that remark, coming from a man who was forced into hiding, essentially imprisoned, for his writing. The truth is, unfortunately, that fences are erected all the time.
To put it into perspective, Houellebecq, although vilified by his literary colleagues, is not even remotely alone in France in his intolerance for Islam. Houellebecq's apparent prejudice - "I observe the world as it unfurls . . . proceeding empirically, in good faith, I observe it," asserts Michel in Platform - reflects a common attitude among non-intellectuals in white France.
The influx of Islamic people into France beginning in the mid-19th century has given generations of French bigots a target for their hate, and even inspiration for great French literature. It's been pointed out by Julian Barnes that the first line in Platform echoes the first line of Camus's The Stranger: Each novel mentions the death of a parent with little more than a blink of apathy. It's fitting that the latest, most miserable outcast of French letters would give a nod to his most relevant father figure, and even more fitting that Michel, in Platform, loses his dad at the hands of an Arab, as a kind of existential payback for the Arab murdered by Camus's protagonist in The Stranger.
It happens that the Islamic issue is significant to Platform, but not its theme. Plot-wise, Michel inherits a paternal wad of francs, and with it goes on a leave of mourning from his job as a cultural bureaucrat for France's equivalent of the Canada Council for the Arts, signs on for a package tour of Thailand and flies off with not much more than a copy of John Grisham's The Firm ("an American best-seller, one of the `best,' meaning one of those that had sold the most copies"), which, later, he ejaculates on and then buries in a Thai beach. So far, so good?
In Thailand, he has sex with generous Thai prostitutes and tips just as generously, while avoiding intimacy with a woman on the same package tour, the young, modest, but gorgeous Valérie, who flirts with him in a way disconcerting from a Western woman. Only once returned to Paris do they fall in love. In bed for the first time together, they drift from sex to a conversation about sex.
Valérie asks Michel, "What have the girls over there [Thailand] got? Do they really make love better than we do?" Michel responds, "I have never met anyone who makes love as well as you . . . You can't possibly understand, but you're an exception. It's very rare now to find a woman who feels pleasure and who wants to give it . . . It's easy to see why men might prefer to save themselves the trouble by paying a small fee."
Anyway, the rest of the novel is full of incredibly, almost rigorously clichéd sex scenes featuring the tireless work of Valérie, along with the occasional hotel maid, jazz musician or lonely, nubile bisexual tourist thrown in for good measure. The pornographic paves the way for the arching conceit of the book - that the endgame of tourism is, of course, sex tourism. And this economic frontier is swiftly breached by Valérie and her boss, a dejected husband named Jean-Yves, who happen to work in the tourist industry.
Together, they organize lucrative and viable sex tours to Thailand that, ultimately, clash and dovetail with Houellebecq's fascination with sex and abhorrence for Islam.
Houellebecq's most challenging idea, particularly because he examines it so thoroughly and so well, is that human beings are inconsistent, his protagonists especially. What frustrates Houellebecq's critics most are his unpleasant contradictions, but they're also what keep his work alive. "The problem is, it's just not enough to live according to the rules," Houellebecq writes in his first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte, translated into English as Whatever.
And, in case the reader hopes to take from his novels a manual for iconoclasm, Houellebecq is quick to shirk responsibility. In Platform, Michel admits, "It's not up to me to invent or adopt new attitudes or new affinities with the world - I gave up all that at the same time I developed a stoop and my face started to tend toward melancholy. I've attended many exhibitions, openings, many per- formances that remain unforgettable. My conclusion, henceforth, is that art cannot change lives. At least not mine."
The great asperity of Houellebecq's style is also what makes his novels oddly enjoyable. We have in them the groanings of a mature Holden Caulfield, one who saw the world, had sex, got a job and feels worse for all of it. It seems baffling how refreshing it is to read Houellebecq's miserable and paradoxically twisted novels, but this is definitely the case. First, because of his very candid and uncomplicated style, as translated by Frank Wynne: "In the bathroom mirror, I contemplated myself disgustedly." Secondly, Houellebecq is pretty funny. His style of literary humour is to replace one pile of bull with a pile of his own and see if you noticed his sleight-of-shovel. A perfect example: "Usually, when I left the office, I'd take in a peepshow . . . Watching pussy in motion cleared my head. The contradictory trends of contemporary video art, balancing the conservation of national heritage with support for living creativity . . . all that quickly evaporated before the facile magic of a moving pussy. I gently emptied my testicles." A very blue logic is up for grabs here, blue in the collar, blue in the mood, and in the filmic sense as well; but mostly it's just rude and funny.
Houellebecq writes with an honesty and an anomic conviction that raises his novels, beyond any single troubling moment, toward genius. His characters remain unperturbed by their iconoclasm, just as Houellebecq could not care less if his work innovates. "The novel form is not conceived for depicting indifference or nothingness," Houellebecq wrote in Whatever, "a flatter, more terse and dreary discourse would need to be invented." He can check that off his to-do list.
Lee Henderson's The Broken Record Technique won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award for best first collection of short fiction.
'Platform' by Michel Houellebecq
by Gavin McNett
Sunday, August 3, 2003; Page BW06
By Michel Houellebecq
Knopf. 259 pp. $25
It doesn't seem to take much, these days, to become the most hated novelist in America, although Michel Houellebecq certainly arrived with a good set of credentials. His writing has a raw, disquieting brilliance that makes it worthy of strong feelings -- a rare and valuable thing in any era. He has a certain Gallic advantage, an infuriating scent of Gauloises and Peugeot exhaust clinging to his pages. His books are filthy. But in truth, the controversy that swirled around his two previous titles, The Elementary Particles and the short-story collection Whatever, has been more about Houellebecq's place in our literary firmament than about the man or his work. There simply aren't many contenders anymore for the position he fills -- serious writers, novelists of ideas, who aren't afraid to be thoroughly obnoxious.
We'll return to that presently (and to Platform), but when discussing Houellebecq in print in this country, it is customary to run through the following standard disclaimer, lest any lover of books encounter one of his novels, or his short story collection, and innocently dive in. I'm copying this directly from the telegram they send out from Central Command: Michel Houellebecq is a Frenchman and a drunkard, whose books contain multiple, graphic depictions of sexual acts of a sort favored by Michel Houellebecq.
Moreover, and of most concern, passages in Houellebecq's books contain political statements that, while it is not altogether clear what they mean, seem like the sort of things he shouldn't be saying.
The level of discourse has been low, in other words, beginning with Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times critic, who attempted to throttle Elementary Particles on its arrival in the States. (Its reception in France was tremendous; in Great Britain, fairly enthusiastic.) What developed was a gang-whacking with sticks and pool cues, where even critics who liked, perhaps even admired or were excited by the book, seemed compelled to list the above points in its disfavor. But if "drunkard" is a hanging offense for a novelist these days, we'll all be reading a lot of nonfiction from now on. The same goes for the sexual obsessions (justly) attributed to Houellebecq: There's no more rutting in his novels, word for word, than in a lot of ordinary American fiction; and to call a Frenchman a pervert is to summon the shades of Rabelais, Sade, Georges Bataille -- who in this case would laugh at you for calling them from their hellfire. Promiscuous heterosexual intercourse is really quite entry-level.
Platform features a depressed, self-absorbed, intermittently priapic man named Michel, an arts administrator who inherits a small fortune when his father is suddenly murdered. He uses some of the money to go on a package tour to Thailand, where he meets Valerie, a travel executive. Michel and Valerie meet up back home, fall in love, rut prodigiously and become something approaching happy. Responding to the anomie and alienation of modern life, they use Valerie's connections in the travel industry to found a chain of sex-tourism resorts, in Thailand, Cuba, Africa -- places in which impoverished, beautiful ethnic people are happy to soothe the First World's crisis of the soul and self, for dollars or Euros. It ends badly: Muslim terrorists attack their resort in Thailand, killing many of the guests and sending the unharmed Michel into a bottomless depression. He removes himself to Pattaya, in Thailand, a destroyed human being with "nothing much left to do in this life." He begins to write, and writes a book.
"My book is reaching its end," he ends it. "More and more often now, I stay in bed for most of the day. Sometimes I turn on the air conditioner in the morning, and turn it off at night, and between the two absolutely nothing happens. I've become accustomed to the purring of the machine, which I found irritating at first, but for that matter I've become equally accustomed to the heat. I don't really have a preference." And then he signs off: "I'll be forgotten. I'll be forgotten quickly."That's more or less how Houellebecq himself lives now, as an alcoholic shut-in near the Irish Sea. But what remains of Platform after cleaning up the liquor bottles, the bodies and the spent latex, is Houellebecq's ideas and his politics -- and in all fairness, neither is very complex in its basics. They're essentially a mélange of borrowed canards from the (European-style) right and left, a lot of common, even shopworn observations on the atomization of the individual, on the lack of joy, love and purpose in contemporary life. But what seems to hit the panic button, at least in America, is that Houellebecq has a genius at making you think he is on your side, that the two of you basically agree about the world and its iniquities, about what will help make things better. And then suddenly you wake up drunk, naked and committed to some repellent political notion, wondering how he got you there.
Platform does this to you again and again -- it decries the loss of organic community, the ego-centered pleasures of consumer society, and finds a cure in globalist polyamory. It turns compassion for Third World poverty into a scheme to remake the developing world into a gargantuan bordello. It's "genius" because it all makes sense -- everyone gains something crucially missing from their lives -- no matter how troubling Houellebecq's conclusions might be. If you've never been drunk or naked before, you might get annoyed at Houellebecq. If what really bothers you is that your carefully thought-out worldview keeps whiplashing from left to right, from Birkenstocks to jackboots, global village to empire, you get annoyed at yourself, realizing that sometimes, there's no clear difference between right and left, mad or sane -- that we're all responding to the same pressures and capable of the same insights, or crazed lapses in reasoning. Which is no more and no less than a novel of ideas -- and we should have many more to love or hate than we do these days -- is supposed to make possible. •
Gavin McNett is a freelance writer in New Jersey whose criticism has appeared in Salon.com and Publishers Weekly.
Other articles about Houellebecq, here