The Book Club

The Extension of the Domain of Houellebecq


Did you read this thing? The whole way through? What a debacle! Perhaps less embarrassing for me than, say, for its author, but I still get a little egg on my face, I think, retroactively, for having spent the past couple of years buying up The Elementary Particles, Houellebecq’s last novel, from the remainder bins and giving it to friends and loved ones. Before I read this one, I was surprised by the extremely technical review Julian Barnes gave it in The New Yorker a few weeks ago, pointing out the book’s inconsistencies and improbabilities (masturbating into John Grisham’s The Firm—improbable; a threesome in the hammam at the thalassotherapy center in Dinard, France—impossible); the review seemed unfair because Houellebecq is a mad genius sociologist, not a craftsman, and he’s a hero to disaffected French youth (still?) because he is bitter and scathing and honest, the novel be damned. One of the great all-time anti-novelistic moments occurred in The Elementary Particles when we suddenly learned halfway through that Bruno, the book’s main sexual outcast, had once been married and even had a child by that marriage—until then, Houellebecq had just been too busy with his tirade against modernity to give us this information. But Platform—jeez. It’s like they put some data (Camus’ The Stranger, sex tourism in Thailand, Islamic terrorism) into the Houellebecq-machine and published the results. Like a Hollywood sequel. The writing is so lazy, so unconvincing, so apparently unedited that it’s hard to see the forest of Big Ideas through the, you know, trees that got chopped down to print it.

That said, there are some OK sex scenes, and the narrator sketches a few intriguing plots for pornographic films; whatever its faults, Platform is a continuation of Houellebecq’s important critique of contemporary sexual relations. The basic Houellebecqian premise, stated most concisely in his first book, Extension du domaine de la lutte (or “Extension of the Domain of the Struggle,” unfortunately translated into English as Whatever), is that the sexual liberation of the ‘60s resulted in free love for a few and no love at all for the rest: “Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. … In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude.” Houellebecq identifies this injustice and speaks for the sexual have-nots.

The other aspect of this dynamic that gets shorter shrift in Houellebecq-talk is the problem of social codes. It’s not so much that Houellebecq’s characters are unattractive (though that, too); it’s that they don’t understand how to behave. The social universe is utterly opaque to them. (In this Houellebecq follows Dostoevsky, Celine, et al.) Here is a characteristic passage from Whatever:

The problem is, it’s just not enough to live according to the rules. Sure, you manage to live according to the rules. Sometimes it’s tight, extremely tight, but on the whole you manage it. Your tax papers are up to date. Your bills paid on time. You never go out without your identity card (and the special little wallet for your Visa!). Yet you haven’t any friends.

Having posed this problem in the first two novels, Houellebecq finally comes up with a solution. Actually, he’s given us solutions before: In Whatever, the narrator tries to convince his co-worker, Rafael Tisserand, an unattractive 28-year-old virgin computer programmer, to murder a girl who’s jilted him at a dance club; in The Elementary Particles, he suggested that cloning might allow us to create a post-human race that would have no need for sexual competition. Platform’s solution is almost more like an observation, in that it’s already taking place: Houellebecq believes, or pretends to believe, that globalization, in the form of sexual tourism, can cure the twin ills of sexual pauperization and postmodern friendlessness. Pot-bellied Europeans have the money; Thai prostitutes have the love. All sorts of love, in fact—Platform is the only book I’ve ever read (and I’ve read many books) in which a prostitute actually asks a customer to extend the sexual act.

So obviously this is pretty silly and even pretty sinister—a novel with a very similar plot could be written in which the prostitutes represent exploited Asian workers. Maybe that wouldn’t be a very good novel. In any case, Houellebecq does seem to be driving at something: that this is the world we already inhabit; that both leftist and Islamic moralism (he equates them) are hypocritical for claiming otherwise; and that insofar as this situation does not obtain, we are only extending the tortured eclipse of the West. In Whatever, Tisserand, the 28-year-old virgin, still believed in non-commercial sex—”But I know that some men can get the same thing [as a prostitute would give them] for free, and with love to boot. I prefer trying; for the moment I still prefer trying.” A lot of good it did him—Tisserand dies in a car accident, a virgin still. In Platform he is replaced and redeemed by the hapless Lionel, who finds joy, at least for a while, with a devoted Thai prostitute. The domain of struggle was extended, and Houellebecq has given in.

Aaron, we have a few days in which to solve the sexual malaise of the Western world. I understand you’re in Paris, which is a good start. Incidentally, I heard that Baudrillard liked the second Matrix movie; is that true?