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Michel Houellebecq
A Non-review by

PLATFORM, 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 dark.

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.

Other Book Reviews:

- Michel Houellebecq
The Usual Rules
- Joyce Maynard

Bangkok 8
- John Burdett

A Whistling Woman
- A. S. Byatt

Being America
- Jebediah Purdy

Fresh Milk
- Fiona Gile

The Man with the Dancing Eyes
- Sophie Dahl

The Stone Virgins
- Yvonne Vera

The Murdering
of My Years

- Mickey Z

Vanishing Splendor
- Alain Vircondelet

Skirt and Fiddle
- Tristan Egolf

- Arthur Bradford

Nowhere Man
- Aleksandar Hemon

The Book of Illusions
- Paul Auster

Lightning Field
- Dana Spiotta

It's a Free Country
- Danny Goldberg

Some of the Parts
- T Cooper

- Jonathon Dee

The White
- Deborah Larsen
Into the Buzzsaw
- Kristina Borjesson

- Ian McEwan

The Black Veil
- Rick Moody

Tempting Faith DiNapoli
- Lisa Gabriele

- Lynn Breedlove

Africa Speaks
- Mark Goldblatt

The Shape of a Pocket
- John Berger

Media Unlimited
- Todd Gitlin

Carter Beats the Devil
- Glen David Gold

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 galore.
(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, global terrorism.

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


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[email protected] | July 2003 | Issue 40
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