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French Ennui, Thai Sex and Three-Way

Illustration by Nancy Haver

In The Elementary Particles, Bruno — one of two fictional brothers whose lives form the basis of Michel Houellebecq’s last novel — spends a weekend working on “a racist pamphlet.” When he’s finished — (“I had a hard-on all the time I was writing it”) — Bruno takes it to Philippe Sollers in the hope that it might be published in his magazine. Sollers bursts out laughing at the absurdity of the idea. “You might have got away with it in Céline’s day,” he says. “These days, there are some subjects about which you can’t just write anything you feel like.”

Houellebecq has built a formidable reputation out of ferociously refuting this claim. Condemned for his rabid anti-Semitism, Louis-Ferdinand Céline fled from Paris to Germany and then Denmark. Houellebecq, who lives in self-imposed seclusion in Ireland, vents a good deal of an apparently inexhaustible supply of spleen on Islam. In his new novel, Platform, he introduces a character solely for the sake of putting quotation marks around tirades against a religion that “could only have been born in a stupid desert, among filthy Bedouins who had nothing better to do — pardon me — than bugger their camels.”

Not that Houellebecq is wary of stepping outside the security of reported speech. His narrative voice is every bit as scabrous, bitter and endearingly loathsome as Céline’s. Here is Céline’s narrator in Journey to the End of the Night, summoned to attend to a young woman who is bleeding horribly after an abortion but constantly distracted by her hysterical mother:  

“I myself had been so obsessed by my bad luck for so long, I was sleeping so badly that I was just drifting, I didn’t care whether one thing happened rather than another. My only thought was that if I had to listen to this screeching mother I was better off sitting than standing. It doesn’t take much to please you once you’re thoroughly resigned.”

This is precisely the attitude of Michel, the narrator of Platform, when he discovers that his father has been murdered by the Muslim brother of his young cleaner, Aicha. Céline, it becomes immediately clear, is not the only antecedent Houellebecq has in his sights. The novel opens with a simple four-word sentence — “Father died last year” — that provocatively invokes the famous first words — “Maman died today” — of Camus’ The Stranger. Mersault shocks with his indifference; Michel goes one better (in the sense of worse): “‘You had kids, you fucker,’ I said spiritedly. ‘You shoved your fat cock in my mother’s cunt.’ I was a bit tense, I have to admit it.” A few pages later he discovers that it wasn’t just his mother that the father had shoved his cock in; he’d been doing the cleaner too! This comes as a jolt to Michel, but, on an intellectual level at least, he is “capable of acknowledging the attractions of the Muslim vagina.”

Nothing is more characteristic of Houellebecq than the way that, having set up this psychologically loaded mise en scène, he promptly abandons it. The brother is arrested and Michel books a package tour to Thailand. Thereafter, the murder might as well never have happened. It’s not even that his father’s death convulsed Michel into melancholy resignation; he had already abandoned himself to a life of wretched self-absorption. Why? Because he’s called Michel and he’s the narrator of a Houellebecq novel. Such types might not be attractive, Houellebecq suggests, but they are not unrepresentative. A “decadent European, conscious of [his] approaching death, and given over entirely to selfishness,” he is also — or so his fellow holiday makers conclude — “a harmless human being and moderately amusing. They were right. That was about it.”

In this light he resembles a Gallic Philip Larkin, who, in his great poem “Aubade,” had this to say about death: “Most things may never happen: this one will.” Houellebecq offers an alternative angle on the same sentiment: “Anything can happen in life, especially nothing.” On one matter, though, they disagree profoundly. Larkin could not see the point in buying a woman dinner in the hope of sex when you could stay home, jerk off, and save yourself money and time. Michel is only too happy to pay for sex. It’s actually the main reason he chooses Thailand for his vacation.

This trip provides ample opportunity to wind up fellow travelers who are outraged by sex tourists like himself. Up until this point there has perhaps been an adolescent, épater les parents quality about Houellebecq’s incessant determination to provoke. Among his tour party, however, is Robert, whose “formidable ability to infuriate” exceeds even Michel’s. “My fate was similar to his, and we had shared the same defeat,” Michel concedes, but Robert is further down on the road of debauched despair. “In the absence of love,” Michel concedes, “nothing can be sanctified.” This realization has been aroused in part by one woman in the group, Valérie. She is attracted to him, but Michel is so wound up in himself that it is not until they are back in Paris that the two of them get together.

 

What follows will be familiar to readers of The Elementary Particles. Having endured a life of misery relieved only by masturbation and pornography, the protagonist suddenly finds himself in bliss. Bliss consists, fundamentally, of sex. Like Bruno, Michel ends up with a girlfriend who is a pornographic dream cum true. “I like girls too,” Valérie coos, and Michel is soon the delighted beneficiary of her sexual generosity. (In Lanzarote, a skimpy novella just published in the U.K., Houellebecq’s characteristically rancid narrator has the good fortune to run into two lesbians who waste no time in letting him know that they are “not exclusively lesbians. Heh heh! I thought.”)

The first of Platform’s joyous three-ways takes place in Cuba. Valérie, who works for a tour operator, has gone there to find out why one of their resorts is not faring better. The problem, Michel persuades Valérie and her boss, is that people aren’t getting what they really want from travel — “that most dreamlike of commodities,” as Houellebecq terms it in Lanzarote — and that is sex. Acting on his insight, the company initiates a bold plan to satisfy this demand by setting up resort-brothels throughout the Third World!

“It’s not up to me to invent or adopt new attitudes or new affinities with the world,” Michel declares at the beginning of the book. It is a tribute to the unvarying insistence with which Houellebecq presents his peculiar dis-affinity with the world that, 200 pages later, any ethical reservations the reader might have had at the outset have pretty well fallen away. They seem like a really good idea, these brothel-resorts (especially since the staff are unanimously enraptured by their work). It’s proof, of a kind, that despite his apparent hostility to the niceties of novelistic form, Houellebecq is not just an insidious and subversive writer but a subtle one too.

This is particularly true of the way Michel’s idyllic sexual relationship with Valérie rehabilitates him as a human being. They set up home together. He remains utterly selfish, but he also becomes tender, less susceptible to the perceived stupidities of the world at large. In Thailand, near their brothel-resort venture, he and Valérie hear a bell tolling; it is a Buddhist custom, apparently, to commemorate a good deed. “How joyful is a religion that causes the air to resound with human testimony to good deeds,” he declares. A moment later, Valérie turns to him and says that she wants them to remain together in this earthly paradise.

In The Elementary Particles Houellebecq writes that “Unhappiness is always keenest when faced with a realistic chance of happiness.” Platform turns this around: Michel’s glimpse of lifelong happiness becomes a measure of the depths of the misery to which he will soon be violently returned. The novel ends in resignation and despair, but along the way it accommodates a skewed and lyrical vision of romantic longing and fulfillment. Céline would have been shocked — and perhaps a little jealous.

PLATFORM | By MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ Translated by Frank Wynne | Knopf | 259 pages $25 hardcover

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