A Non-review by
Michel Houellebecq's new novel (Knopf, 2003; translated
from the French by Frank Wynne) is one part Beckett--minus
the master existentialist's compassion--two parts porn and
three parts satire. The erotic stuff is juicy, and if that
is your thing stop reading this and go buy the book, you
won't be disappointed. However, a warning, the satire pinches
wryly and a gloominess prevails until things turn truly
Jean Renault is a passionless figure, dull in his appearance
dull in his aspirations. About the only thing that moves
him is female genitalia, the store bought peep show variety,
hired by the hour preferred. We meet Michel in Cherbourg,
his father has been found murdered. An "African,"
Muslim housekeeper, with whom Dad had been intimate, has
a brother who took exception to his sister's dalliance and
revenged her by murdering her boss. The student/housekeeper
resents her brother's ignorant behavior, but more on Muslims
later. Michel despised his virile Dad anyway and he spends
a night in his cold house watching movies and quiz shows.
We learn bits and pieces of a lonely childhood with no apparent
maternal figure. A life-long preoccupation was launched
when a neighborhood girl showed Michel what she had under
her skirt: "I never really felt comfortable around
men. I was eleven the first time a girl ever showed me her
pussy; I was immediately filled with wonder...My enthusiasm
for pussy has not waned; in fact, I see in it one of my
few remaining recognizable, fully human qualities."
Ah, Michel, le bel.
In Paris, Michel floats through life at a remove. His job
at the Cultural Ministry is bland, as are his gray suits,
his thinning hair cropped close; the art of conversation
is lost, as is the point of his own life. "Giving up
on life, putting ones own life to one side, is the easiest
thing a person can do." But for an uninhibited libido
tied to an amusing internal dialogue, Michel is hardly worth
a second look. Forced into a social situation he'll hide
behind a prop, a book or a cocktail, to insure against taking
any chances; "It is in our relations with other people
that we gain a sense of ourselves; it's that, pretty much,
that makes relations with other people unbearable."
Michel objects, in his internal thought cubes, to the West
for having lost its sensual core, replaced it with an acquisitive,
overly intellectual society that is out of touch with itself.
In his City of Light, one works hard, taxes are high, crime
is rampant, the air stinks and the simplest of pleasures,
sex, has been spoiled. He asks himself, "Who could
possibly ever have proposed the idea that France was the
country of debauchery and libertinage? France was a sinister
country, utterly sinister and bureaucratic."
Michel decides to take a break. His supervisor at the Ministry
understands; he is grieving, he needs time. Michel is most
assuredly not grieving, but he has come into a pretty nice
inheritance, why not go someplace where the women are still
"innocently" sexual? He goes to Thailand with
a tour that promises adventure and pristine beaches, not
to leave out go-go bars, massage parlors and payable love
(Please see my FREEwilliamsburg June, 2003, piece on John
Burdett's, BANGKOK 8, to fill in the sex scene in Thailand.
It almost seems as if Houellebecq and Burdett compared notes,
or maybe it's true the sex for sale in Thailand is somehow
unsullied? I don't know, that's a little like saying a delicious
tangine-baked chicken, succulent as it might be, isn't really
cooked. But it is cooked and it will eventually be fully
consumed to its bones.) Anyway, by the standard of all that
ails the West, Thailand is all that remains of Eden. As
a fellow tourist exclaims, "Thai girls are the best
lovers in the world."
Well, guess what? Old Michel meets a French woman on the
tour who wants to know what Thai girls have that a French
girl hasn't? She means it, and Michel has found his sexual
match. Valérie is almost too good to be true. She
becomes Michel's second chance at life. We don't quite learn
what his first chance was, but his dreams had not been of
the Ministry of Culture and dates at the adult section of
the local video store. Through her generous (and bi-sexual)
body, Valérie manages to peal back the plaque that
has built up around Michel's soul. Not to worry, nothing
sentimental turns up. Though the Buddha puts in a brief
appearance. (Both Thailand and the Buddha showing up in
two consecutive non-reviews is purely coincidental, though
I am starting to get a hankering for both). In a hotel room
at Patong Beach, Michel reads the Thai equivalent of a Gideon
Bible, teachings of the Buddha: "Because of their ignorance
people are always thinking wrong thoughts and always losing
the right viewpoint and, clinging to their egos, they take
wrong actions. As a result, they become attached to a delusive
existence." Is that what's really wrong with the West?
If so, to Michel the antidote is hot, mind-liberating sex.
Back in Paris, Michel and Valérie decide to live
together and things begin to look up.
The second part of the book takes up corporate France.
Valérie works for a tour company conglomerate. She
is very good at what she does and earns big euros. Michel
muddles along at the Ministry while Valérie applies
herself vigorously to a system she does not believe in.
She tells Michel, "Capitalism, by its very nature,
is a permanent state of war, a constant struggle that can
never end." Is that what's wrong with Western society?
Trouble starts when competitive stakes are raised in the
tourism trade, and Michel comes up with the brilliant idea
of hotels and tour companies teaming up to provide sex instead
of the usual vacation diversions. The plot thickens. The
streets of Paris have grown mean, the suburb surrounding
Valérie's corporate headquarters is rife with street
gangs. Crime oozes like a worm beneath the city and begins
to blend with the undercurrent of an even greater threat,
Houellebecq, throughout the book slips into an essay-like
style commenting on crime, say, or television, the tourist
trade, S&M clubs and a host of other mini topics mused
upon inside Michel's head. One theme that crops up is--a
Jordanian visiting a Thai go-go bar actually says it--the
stupidity of Islam. Michel doesn't have much use for any
religion, no St. Augustine-style abstinence for him, but
a religion that tries to kill off happy sex altogether has
to be ludicrous. He later finds ample grounds for hatred
when Muslim terrorists enter the scene, think the nightclub
bombings in Bali last year. (In real life, the beaches around
Pattaya, once a hippie haven, are empty, go-go bars forlorn,
from the threat of SARS, and from Muslim terrorists living
further south along Thailand's coast.) Michel takes comfort
in hearing the Jordanian declare that Islam is doomed. Whatever
the ills of the West, Houellebecq suggests, it is at least
not suffering under Muslim law.
That is a bold stance for a writer to take today. Michel
Renault may be dismissed by many as adolescent with his
sexual preoccupation, along perhaps with much of the book's
satire. Michel is either a symptom or a freak, readers will
have to decide for themselves, but Houellebecq will make
us squirm whenever he can. Is he holding up a mirror to
the twenty-first century malaise, or parodying a capitalist
drone society (and not just the guys doing the grunt work,
the Trumps and Cases and Halliburton-type mucky-mucks are
drones as well)?
There is a freshness to the way Houellebecq tells his tale.
The flow is sometimes interrupted by those little essays,
and it is odd to find oneself rooting for the anti-heroes
to keep having good sex, to become more themselves through
getting it on--an excellent premise with which to satirize
society. Ultimately, Michel is a man alone. He wants very
little, in fact, as far as goals go, next to nothing. He
understands society would not survive for long if it were
made up of people like him. He finds it increasingly difficult
to, "understand how anyone could feel attached to an
idea, a country, anything, in fact, other than the individual.
Life was expensive in the west, it was cold there; the prostitution
was of poor quality...you worked hard, there were cars,
and noise, and the security in public places was very badly
implemented...the notion that I was in any way in solidarity
with this environment had never occurred to me. It was like
an atrophy, an emptiness."
Jaded? Or calling is like it is? Either way, PLATFORM is
not the optimal book to read on the subway. Take it with
you on your summer holiday. And, go ahead, make juicy love
out there this summer on the sand or meadow or peak.
©July 2003 J. Stefan-Cole