Houellebecq’s Latest Outrage: Dangerous Gallic Provocation

Platform, by Michel Houellebecq. Alfred A. Knopf, 259 pages, $25.

It’s tempting to believe that Michel Houellebecq is not Europe’s most widely read and hotly debated contemporary novelist but is, instead, the central character in an elaborate satire of the literary marketplace written by a French novelist a lot like Michel Houellebecq. From his droll pronouncements at the Frankfurt Book Fair (“I don’t sign books, only breasts”) to his pathetic, drunken come-ons to female journalists from London’s Guardian and The New York Times Magazine , Mr. Houellebecq’s timing as a lout and a troubled genius has rarely been less than exquisite. His first novel, titled Whatever by his English-language publishers in the (vain) hope of confusing it with the follow-up to Trainspotting , contrasted the doomed innocence of barnyard animals and pets with the empty existence of a “typical” computer programmer on the fringes of a cynical and atrophied French society (rave on!). His second novel, The Elementary Particles , caused an international sensation by dramatizing the thesis that all the ills of contemporary life can be traced back to the indulgences of the 60′s generation-meanwhile indulging in scenes of ritualized group sex and lengthy digressions on a variety of subjects, including genetic engineering, quantum mechanics and the hierarchical makeup of animal societies.

Perhaps in an attempt to outdo certain other, more subtle literary defamations of the religion of Islam-touché, Monsieur Rushdie-Mr. Houellebecq’s third novel, Platform , features what we might now call a Houellebecqian contrast between a West that has developed beyond the capacity for pleasure and a developing world that has a choice: providing pleasure for Western tourists in the form of economical sex, or succumbing to the privations of the “losers of the Sahara” (i.e., Islamic fundamentalists). Mr. Houellebecq clearly has his own preference: “Our genitals exist as a source of permanent, accessible pleasure,” he writes, in what amounts to a statement of the novel’s most deeply held belief. (Meanwhile, his penchant for making inflammatory remarks in the press about Islam’s lack of tolerance landed him in a French courtroom-charged with inciting violence against Muslims-and for a time threatened the novel’s publication.)

It’s difficult to predict whether recent global events will render the American reader more or less receptive to Mr. Houellebecq’s distinctly Gallic brand of provocation. One shudders to think of Platform resting on the night stands of our most credulous book pundits-or, for that matter, on the sofa in the interrogators’ lounge at Guantanamo Bay. Platform is calculated to poke, prod, engorge, enrage and amuse the complacent reader of today. It’s dangerous in the way that literature is meant to be dangerous-that is, it awakens neglected sensibilities. So be warned: Read Platform and you just might find yourself thinking fondly of Bastille Days past, raising a champagne toast to President Chirac (that “lanky half-wit”) and forgoing underwear.

Michel Renault is a plain and dissatisfied bureaucrat at the Ministry of Culture whose only pleasures in life, before signing up for a “Thai Tropic” package tour from a company called Nouvelles Frontières, are taking in a peep show on his way home from the office and eating pre-packaged dinners in front of Xena: Warrior Princess . His father in Cherbourg has just been murdered by the brother of his housekeeper (and lover) Aïcha, a recent Muslim convert. Rather than mourning his father’s death, Michel exploits it (à la Camus) for an experiment in racial hatred-mostly failed, it must be said-and as an opportunity for philosophical reflection. “I had a vision of migratory flows crisscrossing Europe like blood vessels,” Mr. Houellebecq writes, employing the language that would get him into legal hot water, “in which Muslims appeared as clots that were only slowly reabsorbed.” Just when it seems that Mr. Houellebecq’s alter ego is about to devolve into the usual logic of European xenophobia, he makes a startling leap with the help of Aïcha’s kindness: “On an intellectual level, I was suddenly capable of acknowledging the attractions of the Muslim vagina.” It’s important to note here that the female sex organ, to Mr. Houellebecq, is not only a source of “wonder” equal to the resurrected Christ, but also a talisman against evil, the answer to the world’s social and economic problems, and a legislative body with roughly the same influence as the U.N.

If pornography is sex without motivation, as the usual shorthand definition goes, then Mr. Houellebecq has reinvented pornography as a literature where sex arrives with the force of inspiration and allows for heightened insight into what he calls, without irony, “the human condition.” Platform is not easy to summarize (much less to quote) in the polite language of the book review, but here goes: Michel, while enjoying his Thai Tropic tour, meets Valérie, a junior executive with Nouvelles Frontières and that “rare” woman in the West “who feels pleasure and … wants to give it.” Over the course of their frequent post-coital conversations, they come up with an idea for revitalizing the ailing travel industry: sex tourism. Valérie’s boss, Jean-Yves (his wife is a dominatrix, though he doesn’t know it), is hired away by the industry-leading Aurore group and charged with revamping their line of package tours and returning them to profitability. And thus the idea of the Eldorador Aphrodite sex resort is born: “our manifesto, our platform for dividing up the world” between the millions of Westerners who have money but no capacity to feel and the “billion people … who have nothing left to sell except their bodies and their unspoiled sexuality.” It’s hard to tell if Mr. Houellebecq is being serious when he calls this bargain an “ideal trading opportunity,” but he does; rarely has the global economy been depicted so accurately in its hopefulness and craven self-interest.

Life is tragic, of course, in that it flowers so expectantly and then dies with a common whimper, often extinguished by forces not of its own making-just ask any first-year student at the Sorbonne (and be grateful that I don’t quote Saussure). Valérie’s demise at the opening of their first sex resort in Thailand has its tragic qualities-enter the Muslim menace-and so does Michel’s own less dramatic exit among the pleasures being hawked at Pattaya Beach. But most tragic of all, according to Mr. Houellebecq’s incomparable Platform , is the fate of those of us who count ourselves as children of the West. “We have created a system in which it has simply become impossible to live,” Michel concludes, “and what’s more, we continue to export it.” An idea that’s convenient to dismiss, like so much of what comes before it, and harder to forget.

Benjamin Anastas’ most recent novel is The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor’s Disappearance (Picador).