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 melange 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.