Michel Houellebecq
Translated by Frank Wynne
Knopf ($25)

by Joel Turnipseed

If the pure product of America is insanity, what have we gotten from the French—le petite mort and the bitter rant? Michel Houllebecq has again combined the two in Platform, his follow-up to 2000's import, The Elementary Particles. The story starts with the death of a man's father and ends with his premeditation on his own, lonely, death. This long shadow of mortality draws the span in which our narrator—also called Michel—discovers that his own life hasn't meant all that much anyway: American television and insipid game shows, cheap porn, pre-packaged everything—from style to tourism, and a civil service job administering art that consists mostly of clichés best equipped to consume themselves. Sex is granted only to the shallow hip and the vainly beautiful (of which Michel is neither) and love—well, who knows where that goes? As our bodies droop and our memory fogs, it gets harder and harder to say. Things aren't much better outside, with racial violence seething in the streets and religious violence spreading across the globe. Houellebecq's brilliance is to package what could easily fall into an intellectually dense meditation as a scabrously funny love story, though one that shows itself in the end as tragedy.

What is immediately striking—and great—about Houllebecq's book is that he has dared to write, in the face of the smugly disapproving, self-satisfied chattering classes, a book from the asshole section (of whatever: airplane, summer camp, weekend conference). If you sit in the asshole section (and it's hard to avoid when you're trying to avoid the high sanctimony of the nice people), you will laugh your ass off. For all the uproar caused by The Elementary Particles and "le affair Houellebecq" that accompanied its publication, Platform seems written at times to take things a step further—to say, in the wake of continuing opprobrium following his scandalous fame, "Fuck you." It's been a long time since a writer this talented was this brave.

At times, however, you wonder if it's real courage or just an idiot's willingness to speak unpleasant truths. Houellebecq was taken to trial in France over Platform and the interviews he gave in support of it, on charges of "inciting racial hatred." Even though he won the case, there are still echoes of the outcry over Houellebecq's hostility toward Islam. Reading the book, it's hard to say which he hates more: the monotheistic religion or those Muslims who insist on humanity's shared worst-impulses of ignorance and repression, and who, further, arm their rage with Molotov cocktails, kalashnikovs, and explosive belts. Houellebecq's book takes a long time to turn from comedy to tragedy, but it does so in a single moment: when Michel's single dream explodes into pink mist with the gunfire of Muslim terrorists at a Thai resort. Platform was published in France before 9/11, and that should help us realize that radical Islamic terrorism (from which the body count has been ticking since the sixties in Europe) is not new just because we in America are its latest and most spectacularly stricken victims. For those of us who were especially shocked by the more anxious moments of self-flagellation and blame following the destruction of the World Trade Center, Houllebecq seems like a savage prophet, presciently mocking Libération for finding the blame squarely with the terrorist's victims and Paris-Match for commercializing it with gory color photos above the fold. In a coincidence that might have made even Stockhausen blush, Islamic terrorists blew up a club in Bali just as Houellebecq's trial came to a close—this is not a writer afraid of playing with fire.

Still, Platform's anti-Islamic moments aren't pretty—not the least for coming across as forced confessions: the two longest cries against Islam are mouthpiece bits by a walk-on Egyptian and Jordanian, respectively. The most disturbing words from Michel come immediately after his tragic loss:

It is certainly possible to remain alive animated simply by a desire for vengeance; many people have lived that way. Islam had wrecked my life, and Islam was certainly something I could hate. In the days that followed, I devoted myself to trying to feel hatred for Muslims. I became quite good at it, and I started to follow the international news again. Every time I heard that a Palestinian terrorist, or 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.

It's easy, reading these passages, to be saddened and disgusted. If despair is the deepest sin, Michel is committing it in spades here—and without hope, it's no surprise there's not a drip of charity for the million Palestinians inhabiting the prison/rubble of Jenin. But it's not the writer's job to cheer us with homilies or to chide us—it is to show us another consciousness (ours, even—more truly); to share in a solitary voice what it is like to be most deeply human. If Michel's despair seems wicked to us, it is undeniably real—and it is not reserved for the Muslims. His near-dying words from his exile in Thailand are reserved for Europe, surrogate for the West:

To the end, I will remain a child of Europe, of worry and 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.

In all of this lay the foundation for the "platform" of the book's title: sex tourism as the cure to the ills of the World, First and Third. God is dead and his century-long replacement, Communism, is equally defunct. And if there just isn't any basis for hope outside our everyday pains and infrequent pleasures? Houllebecq trots out a former hero of the Cuban revolution to lament on his people,

The poor people of Cuba.... They've nothing left to sell except their bodies.

Meanwhile, Michel is in the country on business, accompanying his girlfriend and her fellow executive on a tour of their resorts in a struggle to make them profitable. After hearing the old revolutionary, he thinks:

What could possibly incite human beings to undertake tedious, tiresome tasks? This seemed to me the only political question worth posing. The old factory worker's evidence was damning: in his opinion, the only answer was the need for money; in any case, the revolution had obviously failed to create a new man, one driven by more altruistic motives. . . . the system had failed, no one was fooled any longer, no one was sustained anymore by the hope of one day rejoicing in communal labor. The result was that nothing functioned, no one worked or produced the slightest thing any longer, and Cuban society had become incapable of ensuring the survival of its own members.

This is a drop-dead post-mortem on the communist dream, but when Houllebecq's man utters the solution, you feel like maybe you've been sitting at the bar all night with a guy who's maybe a little bit more of a crank than you figured. Or a lotta bit:

Offer a club where the people get to fuck.

Moments like these make me think of Houllebecq as an Anti-Dave Eggers. If it hadn't been written first, you might be tempted to read Platform as a straightforward satire of You Shall Know Our Velocity, the equally preposterous world-savior novel of last summer. Where the two heroes of Velocity spent way too many pages extolling the virtues of a round-the-world trip handing money out to the needy; our Michel has decided that it would just be best for all of us if we banged them—especially since they give such good massages afterward. The preposterousness doesn't end there, however, since Michel's girlfriend is herself a sexual athlete of the highest order and a well-paid executive to boot, and she just loves to arrange a threesome with the nearest hot babe on the train. It's not that the sex scenes aren't well-written—they are as good for a hard-on as anything you'll find in Penthouse Forum—it's just that they're more appropriate to the innocence of the engineering dorm room fantasy than to serious imaginative literature.

Frankly, there just isn't that much platform in Platform, and that's a good thing. Michel—and at times the book fails the distinction between author and protagonist—presents us with one of the most disturbing consciences of our times, so bleakly honest he comes across as deadpan funny: he's an arts administrator who doesn't care two shits about Art, has no permanent attachments to any one or any idea, is a self-confessed crank and pervert, and can remember his own life just slightly better than the last novel he's read. And this guy, barely able to light his cigarette from the right end, who quotes Comte then masturbates into John Grisham novels, is going to proposition the happiness of the human race? Somehow, the answer hovers around "yes"—but not with the straightforwardly silly platform essayed in the book.

For all the comparisons to Camus and Celine, the recurring impression I have after reading his last two books (his first, Whatever, provoked an eponymous reaction) is that Houellebecq is heir to an older tradition, that of the Cynics—best exemplified by Diogenes of Sinope. Diogenes considered himself an heir to Socrates—an honest questioner of everything cherished in the City; a man who held up in his behavior a mirror to everything that was false; who spoke a true tongue to all the lies and unspoken cruelty in our daily talk. In one of his most famous acts, Diogenes—often called the Dog—was asked to bark for the hosts of a dinner he was attending. His biographer put his reply to this bitter insult subtly, by saying he raised his toga and "turned a dogs trick" on them. Given the famously outrageous antics of Houellebecq (and his wife, who once posed nude for a photo-op), one wonders just how consciously Michel is indebted. For those who cherish Houellebecq as a satirist and not a Cynic, note that there is an interesting inversion at work in Platform: where in Greek times the Satyr play always came after the three-play tragic cycle at festival, undoing the spell of horror, Houellebecq satirizes throughout—only to conclude with his tragedy. If you were looking to upend the literary world, that would be getting to the root of things.

Platform is an important book, speaking necessary things to the self-satisfied; to an age which seems some days to have no ideas worth living for, except, well, living itself—which, in the end, may be Houellebecq's point: we've become so caught up in our anxious pieties and unspeaking shame that we simply no longer know how live—and to share the pleasures of life with each other. But doesn't this lack imagination? In the end, this is the one simple criticism of such a wild and sophisticated book: the simple naiveté of its sexuality and the larger one of its moral vision. But even there, I suspect, Houellebecq is waiting for us, ready to turn his own trick. Even—especially—on the assholes.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003