The Book Club

Vituperation and Resignation


I was worried this morning, before I got your e-mail, that we were going to agree about everything concerning Platform—and that this would lead to a very monotonous Book Club. So I’m pleased to announce that I did indeed make my way through the whole book, and that I even liked it. I’ll go one step further: I think it’s a better novel than The Elementary Particles.

I know that this contradicts most opinion, at least in France, about Houellebecq; and I’m aware that praise is always a dangerous thing when the subject in question is, well, bile. That, of course, is precisely Houellebecq’s own gambit: When he risks coming too close to praising something, he swerves away violently and condemns it with a far greater fervor. Maybe this is why I find myself preferring Platform to The Elementary Particles, since despite its narrower focus—its somewhat smaller canvas—Platform is more ruthless and consistent in its invective. The earlier novel was wonderfully bleak for 300 pages, then in its epilogue zoomed out to reveal that this whole narrative had been framed from a perspective late in the 21st century, when human cloning created a new species of man and effectively signaled the lucky demise of the old human race.

I’m glad you brought up this ending, which I agree proposes a sort of “solution” to the sexual liberation of May ‘68. This is surely the most consistent object of Houellebecq’s ire in The Elementary Particles. The two main characters there are victims of a force more elusive than mere circumstance, something closer to a generational curse. One miserable half-brother indulges in the legacy of the soixante-huitards; the other mostly misses out on it; their mother is completely enslaved to it; all three are doomed. But by the end of the book Houellebecq does offer some kind of bizarre exit from this quagmire, even if it’s as para-human as the creation of a new race. He submits to science fiction in order to redeem Man. And in the final pages he declares of mankind that “the ultimate ambition of this book is to salute this unfortunate and courageous species that has created us.”

There is no 11th-hour redemption in Platform, and there’s never a bone thrown to mankind, even as an afterthought. This novel is as deterministic as its predecessor and just as eschatological, but it does away with the very idea of teleology or solution. I was a bit surprised by this, since all the furor in France over its alleged hatred of Islam led me to believe that Houellebecq’s moralism would provide some antidote to “the most stupid, most false, most obscurantist of all religions.” But the thing about Platform is that Houellebecq refuses to propose anything else. In The Elementary Particles there was one other solution to despair: suicide, which for two characters became a quasi-heroic act. Not in Platform, where homicide and mass terrorism have replaced suicide as the means by which people die.

I’m not sure I agree that in Platform sex tourism is a kind of solution, already firmly in place, to Houellebecqian sexual despair. In Houellebecq’s equation the opposite of Islam is not Christianity but capitalism, and it’s true that at times we seem encouraged to favor any system—free-market economics included—that does not sponsor the murder of 117 Westerners at the Crazy Lips sex club in Thailand. But Houellebecq’s satire is slippery in this book, more slippery than in The Elementary Particles; and he doesn’t have to side with his detested Islam in order to attack sex tourism, the theme that dominates the book more than Islam ever does. The sex in Platform is—you’re right—usually pretty silly. It’s especially funny that in Houellebecq’s universe not a single woman ever wears underwear, and that prostitutes seem even more dedicated than their clients to enjoying every moment of their transaction. And so much of the book is devoted to the pleasures of nubile Thai girls, or sexy Cuban maids, or the narrator Michel’s own perfect girlfriend Valérie, that we often forget that there might be a critique of all this buried somewhere.

But if Houellebecq’s great theme is the decline of the West, and if like D.H. Lawrence before him—though through a radically different lens—he locates this crisis in the standstill of Western sexuality, does he find any advantage in shipping his animal triste occidental overseas? I felt that much of Platform’s integrity lay in Houellebecq’s bitter refusal to concede anything. And so while many critics compared The Elementary Particles to the fiction of Céline, this book strikes me as much closer to Céline in its vituperation, impressively sustained, and in its final resignation. “We have created a system,” Houellebecq writes at the end, “in which it has simply become impossible to live, and what’s more, we continue to export it.” I’m curious if you think Houellebecq does in fact give in here, or whether his Orient is just the Occident with more cheerful prostitutes.