By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
But then comes the second part of Houellebecq’s idea, which might be described as the “fundamentalist theme,” and it shadows his protagonists’ increasingly demented free-market sexual schemes at every turn. It is there, in fact, from the opening pages. The book begins — very much in the style of Camus’ The Stranger — with the death of Michel’s father, who, it turns out, was having an affair with his Arab maid, A√Įcha. A√Įcha’s brother got wind of this, and murdered the father to avenge his sister’s honor. It was, in that sense, a very specific kind of murder, one unlikely to have been committed by a non-Arab Frenchman. There is a further tension: A√Įcha wants to live a secular Western life, but her family opposes this. As she tells Michel after the inquest, “Two years ago, my father made his pilgrimage to Mecca, and since then it’s been all downhill . . . My brothers are even worse: They keep each other stupid, they get smashed on Pastis while pretending to be the guardians of the true faith, and they call me a whore because I want to work instead of marrying a moron like them.”
The Islamic theme is returned to in Thailand, where, amid the usual Westerners, Michel notes the presence of a fair number of Muslim sex tourists as well — mostly from countries such as Egypt and Turkey, but also from more fervently Islamic states like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Although Michel finds them “courteous and charming,” the locals, fearing attacks by Islamic extremists, would prefer that they go away. Signs reading No Muslims Here are hung in front of several hostess bars. A particularly pointed one reads: We respect your Muslim faith: We don’t want you to drink whisky and enjoy Thai girls.
Shortly after the attack that takes Val√©rie’s life, Michel meets a Jordanian banker who has a theory about why certain Muslim fundamentalists are so hostile to the American way of life. Their secret dream, he tells Michel over a beer, is to become a part of it themselves, and their aggression is a symptom of impotent envy. As for the paradise promised by the prophet, the problem for Muslims is that you don’t need to die to find it. “There are places on this earth where available and lascivious girls dance for the pleasure of men, where one can get drunk while listening to heavenly music,” he says. “There are twenty such places within a five-hundred-meter radius of this hotel. These places are easily accessible, and to enter them you don’t need to fulfill the Muslim’s seven duties or dedicate oneself to a Holy War; all you have to do is pay a few dollars.”
In the Jordanian’s opinion, there is no doubt that Islam is doomed: Capitalism will prove stronger. Michel doesn’t like capitalism much himself (the West has created a system that reeks of “egoism, masochism and death,” he thinks gloomily, “and we keep on exporting it”), but he’ll take it over Islam any day. In the meantime, devastated by Val√©rie’s death, he decides to stay on in Thailand. There is also some shame in returning to France, where both the press and government have treated the sex tourists killed in the terrorist attack as “ambiguous victims,” sexual exploiters who got what was coming to them. “One hates to say it, but faced with hundreds of thousands of soiled and humiliated women reduced to slavery throughout the world,” Houellebecq quotes one real-life government minister as saying, “what does the death of a few rich guys matter?”
Salman Rushdie may have a lifetime position as the world’s most controversial novelist, but in terms of annoying the maximum number of different interest groups, Houellebecq has effortlessly surpassed him. Unlike Rushdie, he has no clearly articulated politics and his personal behavior is eccentric, to say the least. When The New York Times sent a reporter to interview him last year (he lives on a small island off the coast of Ireland), he first tried to seduce her, then asked her if she’d like to star in his pornographic home movie, and then collapsed in a drunken stupor.
You could see everything Houellebecq writes and does as a kind of performance art, an attempt to be the most self-parodically “French” French intellectual in history. If there were an Olympic competition for drinking, smoking and making outrageous remarks while looking extremely ill, he’d bring home the gold. In his novels, too, he likes to push ideas to their extremes: In Plateforme, globalization at its most provocative meets Islam at its most militant, and the inevitable result is violence. That said, the true appeal of his work lies in its very ordinariness. Aside from being either abnormally over- or undersexed — both conditions being something of an obsession with him — Houellebecq’s characters are mostly average white-collar workers of the kind he himself once was when he worked as a computer programmer. He writes about the middle class, without condescension or apology, and not many writers do that, despite the fact that most of their readers belong in that category. Highbrow American critics such as Paul Berman profess to find Houellebecq’s books “very strange,” but one suspects that they’re simply unused to coming across thoughts on a page that correspond to the ones knocking around inside their own heads. Self-censorship has become so pervasive that its absence strikes people as bizarre.