Hows this for a coincidence? Its the morning of September 11, 2001, and youre sitting in your Manhattan apartment leafing through the culture section of The New York Times. In a few minutes, the passenger jet will be reinvented as a missile by Arab terrorists and thousands of people will die just miles from where youre sitting. In the meantime, its a perfectly normal Tuesday morning.
You take a sip of coffee and begin reading an article by Alan Riding, the Times veteran Paris correspondent, entitled Frances Shock Novelist Strikes Again. The article has been provoked by the controversy surrounding the latest novel by Michel Houellebecq (pronounced WELLbeck), the 43-year-old author whose last outing, The Elementary Particles, was one of the most controversial novels of the 1990s. A bleak and very funny examination of consumerism and the liberal values of the 60s generation that currently rules France, the book was translated into 25 languages and established Houellebecq as arguably the most exciting young writer in Europe. His new novel, Plateforme, is about a jaded French civil servant named Michel who travels to Thailand in search of sex and finds plenty of it at the hands of nubile young Thai masseuses. His X-rated revels are ended, however, when Islamic militants from neighboring Malaysia blow up a bar called Crazy Lips, killing his lover and 116 other people in the process.
Although Plateforme won rave reviews and sold 240,000 copies in a matter of weeks, Riding reports, it has been attacked for its apparent celebration of sex tourism as a fair exchange between sexually frustrated Western men with money and attractive Asian women without it. (Sex tourism is the future of the world, Michel remarks at one point.) Its often stinging remarks about Islam, however, have proved even more controversial. Michel is understandably bitter about the terrorist act that killed his girlfriend, and his thoughts on the subject are quoted by Riding in the Times:
Islam had shattered my life, and Islam was certainly something I could hate. In the days that followed, I dedicated myself to hating Islam . . . Each time that I hear that a Palestinian terrorist, or a Palestinian child, or a pregnant Palestinian woman has been shot in the Gaza Strip, I shiver with enthusiasm at the thought that there is one less Muslim.
You read on and learn that although Houellebecq has pointed out that Plateforme is a work of fiction, and defended Michels thirst for vengeance as a normal human reaction under the circumstances, French Muslims are enraged not only because of that passage but because Houellebecq himself has been quoted as saying that although all monotheistic religions are stupid, Islam is the most stupid of all. When you read the Koran, he told an interviewer for the French literary magazine Lire, you give up. He later added that Islam was a dangerous religion that, fortunately, is doomed to be undermined by capitalism. You continue reading to the end of the article, where Riding quotes from Michiko Kakutanis review of The Elementary Particles (deeply repugnant) and says that although the French find Houellebecqs work fascinating, Americans may find it puzzling.
Then the phone rings and a friend tells you to turn on your TV. You switch it on just in time to see the second plane hit. You watch the buildings collapse and later see footage of Palestinians celebrating on the West Bank: Islam has just shattered your life.
Something like that must have happened to quite a few New Yorkers on the morning of September 11, although they have probably forgotten it. No edition of the Times has ever seemed less relevant by 9 in the morning on the day it was published than that one, and nothing about Houellebecq has appeared in the American press since. More significantly, there has been almost nothing in the French press either.
The silence is probably to be expected. Houellebecq can infuriate more people in the space of a paragraph than any writer alive, and these are sensitive times. Like The Elementary Particles, Plateforme (which has yet to be translated) is notable for its willingness to express the thoughts of ordinary people on subjects usually considered too touchy to discuss. To an American reader, certainly, Houellebecq is an odd fish: There is nothing ironic about his writing, but theres nothing solemn about it, either on the contrary, he is deliberately outrageous at every opportunity and he manages to be sincere while also being extremely funny. For readers brought up in the Age of Irony, thats an unusual combination.
As much an attack on the West as on Islam, Plateforme reads like an airport novel written by Albert Camus, V.S. Naipaul and a slightly insane director of pornographic movies with a strong romantic streak. Its basic idea could be expressed as follows: Western society is now so materialistic and emotionally sterile, and marked by so much distrust between the sexes, that Western men insufficiently successful and interesting to bed attractive women in their own countries fly to Thailand to sleep with (and sometimes marry) Asian women whose standards for male acceptability are refreshingly low usually, just having a job and a reasonably pleasant personality will suffice. Having set this idea up, Houellebecq deliberately scuttles it by making Michel fall in love with Valérie, an emotionally responsive bisexual French woman he meets in Thailand. Valérie works in the tourism industry, and when she and Michel return to France, they decide to exploit the Wests sexual frustrations by opening a chain of sex-tour hotels in far-flung, exotic locales. The first is the ill-fated Hotel Aphrodite, whose opening Michel and Valérie fly to Thailand to attend.