THE MOOING OF THE RUMINANT
MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ, THE BÊTE NOIRE OF FRENCH LETTERS, UNCOVERS THE SIMMERING INERTIA BENEATH YOUR LUST FOR THAI PROSTITUTES.
It’s hard to be a writer of scandalous fiction these days. By this I don’t mean a scandalous writer, a bad-boy or girl, which is more a matter of addictions and tattoos, a penchant for personal insult. Calling a better or better-known writer a fraud or a wuss makes for fun copy, but it doesn’t exactly shake the walls of the temple. No, what I mean by scandalous is work that provokes and infuriates with uncanny precision. Assaults on current pieties are a necessary ingredient, but just as important is the pose struck while committing these assaults. This pose, or stance, at its most successful, tends to be a mixture of humor and self-disgust, and its strength, its imperviousness (the infuriating part), stems, like many strengths, from weakness. Criticize, condemn, it says. I already know I’m hopeless, so I will speak my truth, which is that you’re hopeless, too.
What’s hard about this stance is not always a question of writerly technique. Tougher than hitting upon the right combination of self-deprecation and naughtiness is getting people to give a shit. Mostly, the literary culture doesn’t give much of a shit. Mostly, there’s nothing you could call “literary culture.” People who maybe once felt obligated to pay attention to new books have donned the adult diapers of Harry Potter-worship. (Just recently a twenty-one-year-old Madrid woman burned her house down trying to concoct a potion in emulation of her hero.) For the more discerning, those who prefer existential complexity borne without the crutch of magic broomsticks, any number of self-reflexive cable dramas usually suffice.
This is all supposing that somebody would want to write scandalous fiction, hurl that quaint-seeming “gob of spit” Henry Miller acolytes once dreamed about. Most serious writers don’t bother anymore, and they’re probably right. It might be better to carve out private nooks of language or delve into obscure but somehow relevant historical events than attempt to write disturbing and/or edifying novels about The Now, which is to say, life as it might be experienced at or near this very moment. Though The Now, for any writer, is contingent, contextual, ultimately limited to a given milieu with its given specificities, some fiction examines the feeling in the air more than others. I’m not referring to the reportorial novels Tom Wolfe has written and advocated so much as works of the imagination that regard current experience worthy of the artist’s aesthetic filtering. This attempt to “keep up” is a project Philip Roth famously declared impossible over forty years ago, long before the Internet and twenty-four-hour news made it true, and it’s remained an undertaking many writers avoid. The pitfalls are deep and many. Writers who approach The Now head-on risk appearing shallow, opportunistic or, worse, passé.
As to the secret ambitions of novelists, I can’t really say, though many appear content to simply “tell a story,” or “let” their characters tell one. These kinds of writers eschew wild-eyed philosophizing and deplore anything that fails to heed the dictates of “craft.” Their books tend to be exercises in linearity, all rising action and epiphany, packed with “fully-realized” characters (we know where they grew up, where they went to school) whose emotions are conveyed precisely and indirectly, often via the descriptions of their surroundings (show business as opposed to tell business). So-called workshop naturalism, of course, has its masterpieces like any other genre, but other writers denounce these first kinds of writers for refusing to examine the mechanisms by which we gladly or grudgingly allow ourselves to be duped by verisimilitude. (Books like Tristram Shandy make these disputes pretty stale, anyway.) Still more writers mistrust both of the above groups for their dogmatism and mirror-image naïveté. The first group is suspect for proceeding as though the world hasn’t changed enough to necessitate new modes of fiction. The second group is a little heavy-handed in its determination to remind us that we are reading a text and not, say, playing foosball. These kinds of writers prefer devices like authorial intrusion, modular construction, a pastiche of styles, and a constant interrogation of the practice of reading. If a husband in the first kind of book stares at an empty bird nest in his back yard and wonders where his wife and children could be, the husband in the second kind morphs into a giant cartoon woodpecker and presents a questionnaire for the reader on the state of the family. The only problem with either model is when their effects become de rigueur, predictable. The third group, those fed up with the old form-versus-content cul–de-sac, includes most of the writers I know. They might be called the “what-the-fuck-do-we-do-now?” school of fiction. Their attempts to answer the question with varying strategies drawn from all and none of the above have at times produced wondrous results.
Most of these results are far from scandalous, though, and what many of these disparate writers have in common is distaste for anything that seems designed for “shock value.” Rightly, they sense when utterances are being perpetrated solely to offend, or even to bully and humiliate, without artistry, without vision. It’s the poetry, after all, that separates Céline from any number of drive-time radio jocks, isn’t it? And there’s only one Céline. That’s the exact number we will allow.
What the French writer Michel Houellebecq (pronounced Well-beck, by all reports) has in common with most of the people in all of these groups is very little. His novels are not “well-crafted.” Nor do they seem particularly mindful of what in ancient times was called postmodernism. Finally, they do not read like the work of a man aching for some deliverance by a marvelous new mode of prose composition. He claims no political position, indeed appears to abhor the politicization of cultural life, yet his books are full of political rants, the kind delivered by people who, as the saying goes, let politics speak them. He seems to fancy himself a philosopher, but his philosophy is a half-baked mishmash of legitimately profound insights about the fate of the species, Hallmarkian notions about ideal love, oddly deadpan (and oddly arousing) smut, and ethnic cheap shots of the variety usually stockpiled by insult comics. He sticks undigested clots of scientific and historical information in the middle of dramatic passages and does it in a way to make you understand he is not looking to make a point about the nexus of fiction and nonfiction. (He’s usually just trying to lend perspective to the proceedings—lovers may fight or forgive, loners may weep for themselves by a river, but the heat death of the universe continues, regardless.)
His novels are grandly preposterous and incredibly funny. They are also, at times, racist, sexist, degrading, antireligious, and cold-hearted, not to mention achingly tender and inclusive portraits of human souls in the throes of suffering and joy at a moment when the very idea of souls is ridiculous. Houellebecq the novelist is part pornographer, part moralist, part Luddite, part scientist, part satirist, part romantic, part fool, part wise fool. He’s kind of a genius and kind of a hack. Houellebecq the man, by most journalistic accounts, is a creepily erratic fellow who drinks too much, or at least drinks more than the female reporters American and European newspapers inevitably dispatch for an interview, women Houellebecq never fails to hit on before passing out. He has caused many a ruckus with his off-the-cuff remarks, and has even been hauled into court on a libel charge brought against him by the French Muslim community.
But unlike so many other attention-throttlers, Houellebecq’s outrages mostly emanate from his work. Usually he’ll be asked if he agrees with some of the more odious beliefs his characters hold dear. Scorning the escape hatch most writers employ—the claim to be merely recording what their characters say—Houellebecq will sometimes admit that, yes, he does agree. There’s something of an adolescent taunt in these disclosures, to be sure, but at least he’s not hiding behind his creations. (How could he? The major ones are named Michel.) Nor does he lash out in ways inconsistent with or unrelated to his work. He’s not really a bad-boy. He’s a sad-boy. He might also be a cynical prick, but that hardly matters. What matters are his novels, which despite (and because of) their seemingly slapdash construction and furiously confused rhetoric remain some of the most compelling works of fiction published in recent years.
English is my only language, so of course I really have no idea how good Houellebecq is or isn’t on the sentence level. That most criticism of translated works fails to acknowledge this frequent deficit from the outset is probably a function of the fact that most professional criticism pays scant attention to the syntactical relations or acoustics of a given piece of writing. Somebody’s prose might get called “lyrical,” or “luminous” (an author I know swears this adjective is reserved solely for women whose books either elude or overpower the reviewer), or even “numinous,” but in general criticism sticks to plot, characters, and the like. This is especially the case when the work under consideration is in translation and the person doing the considering can’t read a lick of the original language. Reviewing a Scandinavian novel a while back, an editor asked me to comment on the translation. “I have no idea if it’s good or not,” I said. “OK,” said the editor, “then we’ll just say it’s ‘lucid.’”
Fair enough, and Frank Wynne’s translations of Houellebecq’s two latest novels, The Elementary Particles and Platform (or, if you prefer, Les particules élémentaires and Plateforme) certainly fall within the range of lucid, as does Paul Hammond’s translation of Houellebecq’s first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte, though Hammond should not be commended if he was the one to cook up its English-language title, Whatever. (To make matters slightly more confusing, The Elementary Particles was published as Atomised in England, where a new short novel of his, Lanzarote, has just been published as well.)
Translators I know have griped about all three renderings of these books (Houellebecq has also published volumes of poetry), but when pressed they couldn’t give me a real sense of what was lacking. Maybe it’s just a case of professional jealousy, as translating a scandalous French best-seller is probably a plum gig in a field that is much underappreciated and misunderstood, or at least according to translators I know. Stories have always abounded about books either ruined or else lofted up past their initial achievement by translators. This latter outcome may occur when the writer in question is less concerned with the fine grain of style than with plot, characters, and the like.
I’m thinking of writers such as Frederick Forsythe and John Grisham—both of whom take vicious beatings in Platform, Houellebecq’s latest novel to be published in America—but also, in a different sense, Bret Easton Ellis, a writer Houellebecq has cited as an influence. Something to remember is that in many places outside of this country Ellis is considered the most important younger American writer. Europe is one of those places. France is definitely one of those places.
Ellis may be an important writer, though I suspect his satire has benefited from translation. His themes are mighty, his humor often exquisite. His prose, by my lights, can sometimes be drab and repetitive. These qualities are part of his point, but they may also help his books carry over so successfully into other languages. (Or else make them more accessible in the original to those without a complete grasp of English.)
Is the same true for Houellebecq? Again, I have no idea, but Houellebecq does spare us the brand-name litanies. Whereas Ellis’s technique seems to be about accrual, or attrition (at least in his later novels), Houellebecq prefers the killshot. Still, there is a significant link between these transatlantic phenomena. Both are unflinching in their dissections of The Now. Both have experienced the enmity of the critical establishment and found themselves in the center of major cultural storms. Both employ fantastical genre devices (Sci-Fi in the case of The Elementary Particles, slasher film gore in Ellis’s magnum opus, American Psycho) to spear the major beasts of their eras: alienation, corporate greed, consumerism, the ruse of individualism, cultural amnesia, sexual dysfunction, communal breakdown, despair. But things have changed since the eighties of Patrick Bateman. Bloodlust, Huey Lewis, and acquisitive exuberance have given way to spite and surrender, and, improbably, a secret hope for reconnection, one sure to be dashed, at least for Michel’s Michels.
Houellebecq’s first novel, published in France in 1994 and in English in 1999, the aforementioned Whatever, is his shortest (it clocks in at an elegant 155 pages), but it’s also in some ways his most complete. Shrewdly tagged “L’Etranger for the info generation” by Tibor Fischer (who clearly knew how to get on the cover of a book), it did share with Camus’s classic a spare, unsettling tone, an existential slow boil of pathos and dread. Later Houellebecq would make more explicit reference to this forebear, but his lineage was apparent from the beginning.
Whatever is narrated by a well-paid thirty-year-old civil servant who teaches computer programs to rural branches of the Ministry of Agriculture. He passes his mostly friendless spare time writing stories in which animals engage in Platonic dialogues. One of these, a “meditation on ethics” , concerns a cow and a filly. The cow, in the narrator’s text, is a creature whose aspect deceives: “‘all year round she thinks of nothing but grazing, her glossy muzzle ascends and descends with impressive regularity, and no shudder of anguish comes to trouble her light-brown eyes. All that is as it ought to be, and even appears to indicate a profound existential oneness, a decidedly enviable identity between her being-in-the-world and her being-in-itself.’” But here is a philosopher’s mistake, the text continues, because this placid cow will soon go wild with genetically programmed horniness, her mooing so intense it resembles “‘certain groans which escape the sons of men.’”
The cow “‘gets stuffed,’” courtesy of the breeder’s insemination needle, and eventually gives birth to a calf, but her deeper appetites are never truly sated. “The breeder, of course, symbolized God,” writes the narrator in subsequent commentary. “Moved by an irrational sympathy for the filly, he promised her, starting from the next chapter, the everlasting delight of numerous stallions, while the cow, guilty of the sin of pride, was to be gradually condemned to the dismal pleasures of artificial fertilization. The pathetic mooing of the ruminant would prove incapable of swaying the judgment of the great architect. A delegation of sheep, formed in solidarity, had no better luck. The God presented in this short story was not, one observes, a merciful God.”
Here Houellebecq’s recurring theme—sex as a discrete political economy parallel to the one propagated by global capitalism—gets an early airing. The idea triggers some of his central questions, too, such as what does it mean to be naturally human in a world so naturally inhumane? Or how can we be happy when our prospects for happiness, which in Houellebecq’s universe (and maybe ours, too) means getting laid (but not necessarily “stuffed”), grow ever dimmer? Will the sin of pride forever enslave us?
“Sexuality is a system of social hierarchy,” the narrator writes, and late in the book he forces the mechanism to reveal itself in the person of his co-worker, Tisserand. “The problem with Raphaël Tisserand—the foundation of his personality indeed—is that he is extremely ugly. So ugly that his appearance repels women, and he never gets to sleep with them.” Sent out into the field with Tisserand, who seems somewhat oblivious to the hopelessness of his amorous pursuits, the narrator, perhaps out of cruelty, perhaps out of compassion, certainly out of boredom, does everything he can to deliver Tisserand to the nasty truth of his condition. It all culminates in a provincial disco, where Tisserand is once again rebuffed for another man and the narrator explains to his colleague that though his sex life is doomed by his looks and the psychological trauma his looks have caused, there is a course of action still available: “‘Launch yourself on a career of murder this very evening… when you feel these women trembling at the end of your knife, and begging for their young lives, then will you truly be the master…’” When Tisserand replies that he’d “‘rather kill the guy,’” a biracial man, the narrator exhorts him: “‘Why, yes! Get the hang of it on a young nigger!’”
Which is where, of course, things get really uncomfortable, the place Houellebecq thrives. (The mere act of butchering women, after all, that horror film/American Psycho staple, is not a “hate crime.”) Houellebecq’s narrators tend to wallow in epithets and stereotypes, as does Houellebecq, and if that old stand-up comic standby about being an “equal opportunity offender” doesn’t quite cut it, there is something poignant in his tracking of the consciousness of the hateful middle-class white bureaucrat. It’s the poignancy of obsolescence, of being squeezed out (thankfully so) from all sides. Riding a train, the narrator remarks:
Not far off from me in the carriage a black guy listens to his Walkman while polishing off a bottle of J&B. He struts down the aisle, bottle in hand. An animal, probably dangerous. I try and avoid his gaze, which is, however, relatively friendly.
An executive type, doubtless disturbed by the black man, comes and plonks himself down opposite me. What’s he doing here! He should be in first class. You never get any peace.
Is “animal” mitigated by “friendly,” or the distressing imposition of the executive? Of course not. It’s vile. But “friendly” does make the whole thing pretty funny. There’s just something recognizable, and strangely humorous, in this kind of confusion, whereby one clings to destructive stereotypes even in the face of contradictory evidence. The obsolescence is nearly willed. As if to acknowledge the ludicrousness, Houellebecq cues violins at the end of the passage: “I don’t like this world. I definitely do not like it.”
It’s a refrain Houellebecq’s fiction never ceases to indulge.
Houellebecq’s second novel, The Elementary Particles, made a mountain out of a molehill, which, if you think about it, is not something to be derided. Who wants to climb a molehill? What kind of vista does it afford?
The molehill in question is the legacy of the sexual revolution and the revulsion Houellebecq apparently feels for hippies. The mountain is the struggle of his two main characters to find meaning in, yes, you guessed it, a meaningless world. The vista is vast. The landscape is rotted, pocked.
Whatever’s French title translates loosely into the Extension of the Field of Battle. The Elementary Particles is the extension of the extension. Half-brothers Bruno and Michel, abandoned by the same free-love mother at different times and in different places, grow up separately, both damaged goods. Bruno becomes a sex-obsessed failed writer, Michel a brilliant scientist incapable of love, or even, for the most part, an erection. Though their sporadic meetings don’t generate much of a brotherly bond, there is a sense they need each other, or the idea of each other. Or at least Houellebecq needs them both, for together they assure a completion: the completely shattered 21st-Century European White Male.
The novel begins with Michel Djerzinski, who, we’ve learned from a short prologue, will eventually go on to play an integral role in the future of the human race. But for now he is simply a forlorn geneticist who has inexplicably taken leave from an enviable posting at a laboratory outside Paris. After a stilted farewell party (“Bottles of champagne nestled among containers of frozen embryos…” Michel goes home to his apartment and finds his canary dead. He eats a TV dinner (“monkfish in parsley sauce, from their Gourmet line” before disposing of the bird down a trash chute:
He didn’t know what was at the end of the chute. The opening was narrow (though large enough to take the canary). He dreamed that the chute opened onto vast garbage cans filled with old coffee filters, ravioli in tomato sauce and mangled genitalia. Huge worms, big as the canary and armed with terrible beaks, would attack the body, tear off its feet, rip out its intestines, burst its eyeballs. He woke up trembling; it was only one o’clock. He swallowed three Xanax. So ended his first night of freedom.
The fear, the trembling, the beaked worms! And this is the more well-adjusted brother. If Michel seems a bit troubled by the nature of existence, at least he’s content to wait out this life thing and work on his experiments. Poor Bruno has little in the way of an assuaging outlet save the caress of his lotion-swabbed hand. His childhood memories are no balm. A scared little fat boy, he is packed off to live with his grandmother, then sent to a series of boarding schools after her death. He is systematically tortured by more confident classmates, beaten, raped, forced to wallow in his excrement. But as Houellebecq explains in an attendant passage about alpha, beta, and omega males, which seems culled unedited from a Discovery Channel webpage (a device employed throughout the novel), this is all according to nature’s plan:
Combat rituals generally determine status within the group; weaker animals try to better their position by challenging those above them… The weakest animal, however, can generally avoid combat by adopting such submissive postures as crouching or presenting the rump.
Bruno has spent his lifetime adopting both postures. His ongoing attempt to liberate himself through the pursuit of pleasure at various sex clubs and communes almost works (after a few decades of humiliation). He falls in love with a woman who finds him attractive and enjoys swinging as much as he does. This proves too good to be true, of course, especially in Houellebecq’s cosmos. Their bliss is literally fucked to death. Bruno will eventually go mad, resume his crouch. Determinism is just too much to bear. It’s too much for Michel, as well, but he’s a little more proactive, at least in his outlook. “All in all,” he thinks in one of his typically amusing inner overstatements, “nature deserves to be wiped out in a holocaust—and man’s mission on earth was probably to do just that.”
But even nature’s annihilation may not compensate for the havoc wreaked by sixties counterculture. It’s here, in Houellebecq’s excoriation of just about every consequence of that era, that he really lets his freak (and sometimes freakishly reactionary) flag fly. To Houellebecq’s characters, the sixties were the death twitches of the West. What we’re living through now is more like putrefaction. But it didn’t all begin with the Summer of Love. Bruno describes theories which trace the problem back to Viennese Actionists, beatniks, and serial killers, all of them symptomatic of Western Civilization’s postwar return to the “brutal cult of power, a rejection of secular rules slowly built up in the name of right and morality.” If this sounds a bit overbearing, Houellebecq characteristically rescues the moment for his beleaguered protagonist: “Bruno fell silent. He had long since finished his coffee; it was four a.m. and there wasn’t a single Viennese Actionist in the house.”
But the action Houellebecq seems most obsessed with is the sort Bruno can’t get enough of. There are money shots aplenty in The Elementary Particles, especially as Bruno and his lover Christiane ride the orgy train to the edge of sensation. Sentences like “The woman began to jerk him off while Christiane continued to lick his glans” appear in Houellebecq as often as “she stood and crossed to the window” might in the work of another. As a friend of mine, the artist Farhad Sharmini, joked, many of Houellebecq’s chapters might well begin: “Dear Penthouse Forum: I am a spiritually exhausted French civil servant…” But even the fatigue fails to offset more traditional hang-ups: “He believed her—he could see that she was in love with him—but couldn’t help feeling that many of the women they met in clubs were disappointed when they saw his cock.”
The sexual revolution is a dead (if delirious) end for everyone in Houellebecq’s world, most pointedly for those who helped usher it into being:
Sexual desire is preoccupied with youth, the progressive influx of ever-younger girls onto the field of seduction was simply a return to the norm; a restoration of the true nature of desire, comparable to the return of stock prices to their true value after a run on the exchange. Nonetheless, women who turned twenty in the late sixties found themselves in difficult position when they hit forty. Most of them were divorced and could no longer count on the conjugal bond—whether warm or abject—whose decline they had served to hasten.
If this sounds like a family values rap, that’s because, in a sense, it is, though Houellebecq is never so easy to peg. It’s not promiscuity Houellebecq is criticizing, but rather the way promiscuity replicates a society of haves and have-nots. The cult of the body, like the cult of money, will crush us all, even its staunchest proponents. Which isn’t to say Houellebecq is for the overthrow of capitalism (he’s a free-market cheerleader half the time), or the curtailment of sex (Mon Dieu!). He just sees blood pouring out any way you slice it. There’s no Arcadian past to yearn for, either, unless it’s in the future. “Life’s a bitch and then you die,” went the old bumper sticker, and Houellebecq probably wouldn’t argue or amend, except to suggest that someday there might exist a race of happy clones who will have no use for bumper stickers or the jokey pessimism they declaim.
Short of that utopian destiny, which wouldn’t be ours, anyway, is there a possible escape save the one we’re guaranteed? Can there be respite from the pain of wanting only what you can no longer, or never could, have? Bruno wonders:
Did he want women his own age? Absolutely not. On the other hand, for young pussy wrapped in a miniskirt he was prepared to go to the ends of the earth. Well, to Bangkok at least.
And for another Michel, the narrator of Houellebecq’s third novel, Platform, to Bangkok, or at least to Thailand, it is.
The ultra-omniscient narrator of The Elementary Particles turns out to be an historian from the future. The novel is actually a study of the last days of mankind and an introduction to the work of Michel Djerzinski, who, before his suicide on the coast of Ireland (where, perhaps not so incidentally, Houellebecq resides), pens scientific and social tracts that help found a new race of beings. Platform, Houellebecq’s best work to date (though he has called its setting a “mistake”), doesn’t rely on such narrative gimmickry. This Michel (surname: Renault) must suffer the devastations of the “I.” Here’s where a hearty dose of Camus might soothe, and indeed the novel opens with a line that can only be viewed as both jeer and homage: “Father died last year.”
This father, though, definitely died last year, not maybe, and was, in fact, murdered. The culprit is the brother of the father’s housekeeper (and lover) in Cherbourg, the manner of the crime brutal and brutally Houellebecqian: “It was there [beside the basement boiler] that my father had been discovered, his skull shattered, wearing shorts and an ‘I Love New York’ sweatshirt.”
Michel sticks around long enough for the police to arrange a reenactment of the murder, where he meets his father’s killer, a young Muslim man who, along with his brother and father, earns no sympathy from his more modern and studious sister: “‘They get blind drunk on pastis and all the while they strut around like 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.’”
Michel replies “with embarrassment” that “It’s true, Muslims on the whole aren’t up to much,” and his remark is reminiscent of the kind of comments that have gotten Houellebecq into so much trouble. He told Lire magazine that “Islam was the stupidest religion,” and though in his estimation the other big two weren’t far behind, he soon (a week before the Twin Towers attacks) appeared on the cover of a Moroccan newspaper beneath the headline “This Man Hates You.” That the plot of the novel in question climaxes with a fundamentalist Muslim terrorist attack has only enhanced his mystique.
After the murder investigation—“All witnesses are disappointing,” the detective observes—Michel returns to Paris. His job as an accountant for the Ministry of Culture, working out the finances for various government-sponsored art projects, seems pointless now that he’s inherited his father’s money, probably, he guesses, against his father’s wishes. Furthermore, it’s time to break out. His familiar (to Houellebecq readers) routines—work, peepshow, TV dinner, TV (“At about two in the morning I’d finish with Turkish musicals”) —seem depressing even to a French depressive. “Why had I never shown any real passion in my life in general?”
Michel takes a holiday, courtesy of Nouvelles Frontières, an outfit started by a “left-wing Catholic” in the student protest days. Now a tourist industry power, the company specializes in the new kind of ecologically and culturally sensitive traveler. Considering a trip to Cuba (“it has a sort of ‘endangered regime’ appeal” ) Michel opts for the “Thai Tropic” package instead, a beach-and-
bamboo forest “Adventure” requiring only middling levels of physical fitness. He sets off at once, swallowing his second sleeping pill as the plane flies over Afghanistan: “The Taliban were probably all in bed stewing in their own filth. ‘Goodnight, Talibans, good night… sweet dreams…’”
Michel never really bonds with the tour group, comprised mostly of “sluts” and pedants, but in between solitary walks on the beach and full-penetration massages in the hotel’s parlor, Michel develops a crush on a fellow tourist, Valerie. Though unable to work up the nerve for an advance, he sees her again in Paris and they fall immediately into each other’s arms. Valerie, it turns out, works for Nouvelles Frontières. Valerie also, like Bruno’s godsend Christiane, prefers her sex on the wild and populous side. Together they cook up a scheme for a new twist on the travel industry: mainstreaming sex tourism.
Valerie’s boss, Jean-Yves, is sold on the idea. He’s taken her with him to another company looking to revitalize some underperforming sectors of its empire. Everyone knows that many Westerners travel to the Third World for sex, but the better hotels usually don’t let local prostitutes come up to the rooms. That’s a lot of lost revenue. Why not package it all together, and make it less seedy in the bargain? Eldorador Aphrodite, catering not just to the “lonely pot-bellied European” the hippie travel guides abhor, but to any and all with the wallet and yearning, is launched.
It seems a no-brainer, at least to Michel:
You have several hundred million Westerners who have everything they could want but no longer manage to obtain sexual satisfaction: They spend their lives looking, but they don’t find it and they are completely miserable. On the other hand, you have several billion people who have nothing, who are starving, who die young, who live in conditions unfit for human habitation and who have nothing left to sell except their bodies and their unspoiled sexuality. It’s simple, really simple to understand: It’s an ideal trading opportunity.
It sure ain’t Marxist liberation, but that’s Houellebecq’s (perhaps unintended) point. Global capitalism is not going to reform itself, nor will it acquiesce to any changes that aren’t mostly cosmetic and respectful of the profit margin. Unless you’re working to upend the system, you might not have the right to get moralistic, or, for that matter, paternalistic, about the horrors of sex tourism. That there could be a reasonable argument for its positive aspects is troubling, but not much about the world isn’t troubling.
Then again, one wonders, is this trio’s “platform” for economic conquest via “ideal trading” a merely Swiftian conceit? Is Houellebecq testing us, having us on? It’s not always clear. This modest proposal, it must be said, is contained within the unrealistic bubble of Michel’s foreign sexual experiences, none of which ever really touch on the violence and disease so endemic to prostitution. His dream resort is built in a fairly dreamy Third World of bemused sex workers provided with ample health care. (Take a look at Mohamed Choukri’s masterful autobiography For Bread Alone for a more harrowing and informed depiction of street life, in this case North African.)
Still, Michel’s logic seems persuasive, up to a point. That point may be where the rest of world reacts to the assumptions necessary for such logic. The tragic finale of Houellebecq’s novel prefigures a real event, but it’s not the World Trade Center attacks so much as the bombing in Bali last year. A tropical paradise is only as safe as the weakest link in the chain which separates it from the adjacent tropical hell. If paradise breeds peaceful torpor for the fortunate, any nearby suffering will be magnified, and fervent belief will lend that suffering focus.
The Muslim terrorists who bring the proceedings of Platform to its bloody conclusion are connected to those who are, in the words of one character, an Egyptian scientist proud of his glorious civilization, the “losers of the Sahara.” His diatribe against the influence of Islam is at the heart of what has made the novel offensive to so many:
‘Do you think Islam could have been born in such a magnificent place?’ (with genuine feeling, he motioned again to the Nile valley). ‘No, monsieur, Islam could only have been born in a stupid desert, among filthy Bedouins who had nothing better to do—pardon me—than bugger their camels. The closer a religion comes to monotheism—consider this carefully, cher monsieur—the more cruel and inhuman it becomes; and of all religions, Islam imposes the most radical monotheism.’
The maneuver, clever or cheap, of putting these words in the mouth of an “enlightened” Egyptian has not diluted the anger many have felt towards Houellebecq, nor has the fact that Houellebecq himself concurred with his creation in an interview. The Egyptian goes onto dismiss the notion of an Arab Muslim golden age by asserting that those poets and mathematicians who represented this medieval flowering were men who had lost their faith.
There’s something genuinely odd about the fact that to argue against religious fundamentalism is considered by many intellectuals a reactionary stance, but it’s often the case. There is confusion in the West as so many other things—class, gender, colonial history, the imperial present—are bound up in religion. (“What right do you have to say a woman in a burka is oppressed?” says Jane. “Probably no right, but then what about clitoridectomies?” replies Dick.) So we go in circles, balancing righteousness and relativism while our governments invade and exploit the world ad infinitum, or at least until the West runs its course and some other geographical or economic region, waiting in the wings, gladly steps in to assume the role of Great Satan. That a different kind of reply will continue to come in the form of prayer-blessed high explosives is only now settling into our psyches. Whether the more virulent strains of monotheism are stupid is not really the point. It’s a monumental impasse, one Houellebecq, without offering easy answers, has thrust in all its sorrowful urgency before us.
To call Houellebecq’s project reactionary is misleading. There is not much he is trying to preserve—“People like me were incapable of ensuring the survival of a society, perhaps more simply we were unworthy of life” —and what there is will never be safe from his destructive self-disgust. E.M. Cioran, writing in Anathemas and Admirations about the Catholic reactionary essayist Joseph de Maistre, enemy of the French revolution, penned lines which might apply to Houellebecq as well: “Ignorant of the practice of excess, we could learn it from de Maistre, who is as likely to compromise what he loves as what he loathes.” Cioran also writes:
What attracts us is his pride, his marvelous insolence, his lack of equity, of proportion, and occasionally of decency. If he did not constantly irritate us, would we still have the patience to read him?
Eerily, one of these insolent quotes Cioran offers up from the de Maistre trove sounds a bit like a Houellebecq rant, especially if you substitute the last word:
The greatest enemy of Europe, a foe to be crushed by all means short of crime, the deadly cancer lodged in all sovereignties and unremittingly feeding on them, the son of pride, the father of anarchy, the universal dissolvent, is Protestantism.
Religion, science, capitalism, socialism: These, for Houellebecq, are the dangerously flawed systems into which we pour our longing, our dread. We don’t get much in return, especially in poorer parts of the world, but for Michel the West offers little consolation besides culture. All in all it’s too expensive, too noisy, too draining. Democracy is a joke. Intimacy near-impossible. Even after his world is ripped apart Michel returns to stay in Pattaya, to live alone until he dies, forgotten. Meanwhile he marinates in bitterness, quivers with “enthusiasm” every time he hears about a Palestinian, whether a terrorist, child, or pregnant woman, gunned down in the Gaza Strip. “It meant one less Muslim. Yes, it was possible to live like this.”
This bile evaporates, too, though not due to any moral revelation. It’s merely the realization that Islam, like most obsolete models, is doomed by the consumerist desires of its children. But this is no feel-good Lexus-and-the-Olive-Tree fairy tale:
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.
So why live at all? Well, there’s sex. For Michel the wonder and adoration he felt for the “small, strange, cleft organ” ever since an eleven-year-old girl first showed him hers, has not wavered. There’s even the possibility of love, however much subject to life’s cruel whims (which in Houellebecq’s novels is a lot—the women his protagonists love tend to die prematurely): “It was far from certain that society could continue to survive for long with individuals like me; but I could survive with a woman, become attached to her, try to make her happy.” It’s a rather startling statement in the context of this novel, one so enveloped in the misery of The Now.
Which brings us to the ultimate argument for perdurance—the work itself. Even a suicide note is a kind of evasion of death, a protraction, and Houellebecq’s novels, no doubt called “dark” in marketing meetings, are actually light-bearing, life-sustaining fictions, mostly because they’re damn funny. “The novel form is not conceived for depicting indifference or nothingness,” the narrator of Whatever remarks. “A flatter, more terse and dreary discourse would need to be invented.” Houellebecq has somehow found that discourse, and it turns out to be terse, but not nearly so dreary as the world it probes.
The “platform” of this novel’s title is not just Eldorador Aphrodite’s plan for dominating the sex tourist industry. Late in the book Michel describes a childhood memory, hiking in the mountains and climbing an electricity pylon to a dangerously high platform, the descent from which seems suddenly terrifying.
The mountain ranges stretched as far as the eye could see, crowned with eternal snows. It would have been much simpler to stay there, or to jump. I was stopped, in extremis, by the thought of being crushed; but otherwise, I think I could have rejoiced endlessly in my flight.
It would be tempting to call this boy the West, caught between Icarus and St. Simeon, trapped, rapturous. The scandal of Houellebecq, if there is one, is not the porn or the Muslim-baiting. It’s the paralysis, the inertia, which forces us to devour ourselves and the world with us. Meanwhile we maintain our delusions with hypocritical tact and lip service to notions of equality we have no intention of enacting. We could rejoice, though not endlessly, in flight. It would maybe free us from that sound we cannot escape, the sound of us, our woeful ruminative mooing.
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