How’s this for a coincidence? It’s the morning of September 11, 2001, and you’re 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 you’re sitting. In the meantime, it’s 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 “France’s 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 Michel’s 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 Kakutani’s review of The Elementary Particles (“deeply repugnant”) and says that although the French find Houellebecq’s 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 there’s 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, that’s 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 West’s 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.
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, Aïcha. Aïcha’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: Aïcha 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 Valérie’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 Valérie’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.
It also makes people nervous. Heavily favored to win this year’s prestigious Prix Goncourt, Plateforme was officially shortlisted for the prize on September 11 just a few hours before the attack (day breaking six hours earlier in Paris), but by October, when the list was shortened even further, his name was no longer to be found. According to an article in Le Monde, it had been taken for granted, post 9/11, that the attack on the World Trade Center had destroyed Houellebecq’s chances of winning the Goncourt, but no one expected to see his name removed from contention altogether. But that is what happened, apparently for political rather than literary reasons.
Houellebecq has more serious problems, however. Pierre Assouline, the editor of Lire, has stated that he believes that Houellebecq has a racist aversion to Arabs (a charge Houellebecq denies), and makes much of the fact that Houellebecq’s mother, a hippie who abandoned him when he was a child, later converted to Islam. More worryingly, French Muslims have announced their intention to take legal action against him under a French law barring the incitement of religious and racial hatred. Leading the charge has been Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Mosque, who recently claimed that no more than 1 percent of Muslims worldwide share Osama bin Laden’s views. (According to the Iranian journalist Amir Taheri, that would still amount to almost 13 million people.) In arguing for prosecution, Boubakeur was reported as saying that Houellebecq’s “racism, his phobia, his obsession, his paranoia” suggested an urgent need for psychiatric care. “We know this style of literature in France, with Albert Camus, or with other alcoholic or non-alcoholic or drugged authors,” he said.
If Houellebecq is successfully prosecuted, he could theoretically face a year in prison. In the unlikely event that this should happen, he may find himself treated — like the people killed in the terrorist attack in his novel — as a somewhat “ambiguous victim” himself.
After receiving death threats from Islamic fundamentalists, Houellebecq is now living in a Parisian safe house with his pet corgi, Clement, and is forbidden to leave France except under armed guard. Score one for the fundamentalists, but score two for the author, who has lost neither his nerve nor his sense of humor. Defying his publisher’s gag order, he recently asked a Scottish journalist whether he had any contacts in the Royal Family, because Clement was beginning to suffer “from very strong sexual desires.” Houellebecq reiterated that he is not a racist, argued for a more “rational organization” of prostitution, and added: “It is not a crime to pass a value judgment on another civilization.”
Plateforme will be published in English in 2002. Vintage will publish the paperback edition of The Elementary Particles on November 14.