The Book Club

Who’s To Blame?

Dear Aaron,

I’m sorry I called you crazy yesterday. I’ve been writing these things late at night, and you know how it is late at night. Or Houellebecq knows, anyway. Also I thought it might help our ratings.

Not that I’ve been having Houellebecqian nights, by the way. I’ve just been staying up late is all.

I think you’re absolutely right to say that economics, the idea of economics as the master narrative, is at the heart of this book—”magic capitalism,” Mark Greif calls it in an upcoming issue of Dissent. And it raises the big question: Edmund Wilson liked to divide critics of bourgeois society into those who, like Sinclair Lewis, merely satirized it without giving up their membership cards, and those who, like Flaubert, condemned in their novels an entire civilization. Which one is Eminem? Which one is Houellebecq? Certainly the places his characters end up at the end of each novel—insane asylum, post-human futuristic civilization, Thailand—indicate that he’d like to be outside, condemning. But on the other hand, the most compelling thing about Houellebecq is his ability to inhabit modernity with gleeful venom—in TheElementary Particles, Bruno goes to the supermarket:

The Leclerc supermarket at Royan was open until ten o’clock. As he [Bruno] wandered through the aisles he thought about Aristotle’s claim that small women were of a different species. A small man still seems to me to be a man, he wrote, whereas a small woman appears to me to belong to a new type of animal. How could you square such a strange assertion with the habitual good sense of the Stagirite? Bruno bought a bottle of whisky, a box of ravioli and a pack of ginger snaps.

It’s so far removed, this sensibility, from—for example—Ginsberg’s poem about Whitman in a California supermarket, where the combination of “Whitman” and “supermarket” is the source of humor. It’s not funny anymore. We do walk around in supermarkets—in fact we are basically left alone in them to walk around as much as we like; we have thoughts in them if we’re so inclined. Life goes on, in other words, but in a way, too, this is a new sort of human experience, this walking the clean white aisles of a supermarket, and perhaps in some way we are a completely different species, as a result, than Aristotle was.

Also sex. Sex in Houellebecq is not, as it is in Mailer, a question of power or, as in Roth, a scene of existential revelation. The sex is most like a consumer purchase. In Platform of course it’s patently that—Michel pays the prostitutes money—but even non-commercial sex is still inflected with capitalist images of happiness. “Back in Paris, they had happy moments together, like stills from a perfume ad.” Bruno’s pleasure, when he finally finds a woman, is heightened by all the hype that preceded it; he is fellated in a whirlpool at the swingers’ resort and is overcome with happiness. The chapter ends with the sentence, “He had never felt such fulfillment in his life.” This is pure pleasure because the sex is exactly as advertised.

Walking around New York it’s impossible not to be amazed by the fact that every single couple looks alike. Even the interracial couples—actually, especially the interracial couples. Norman Rush calls this “assortative mating.” What it proves is that in conditions of abundance and efficiency, everyone will find someone who looks just like him. The trouble is twofold: We are subject to the cult of the young body and so want more, and there is a lack of efficiency—the Houellebecqian critique sounds at times like Ezra Pound’s pet notion that there is plenty of stuff to go around, it’s the distribution that’s at fault. Enter the Jews.

In Platform, the Muslims enter instead. They are the enemies of the sexual-consumer paradise, the enemies of global capitalism. I think we’re both unsure what to make of this conclusion. After all, Houellebecq claims to hate the West, and his hatred is partly moralistic. There is a strange moment early in the book when Michel finds himself having unsafe sex with a Thai prostitute. “Anyway,” he thinks, “they probably had medical checkups or something.” Reading that line, I was certain that after Michel found happiness with Valérie (and it was clearly in the cards, he’d seen her breasts), they would both die of AIDS. Instead, the avengers are terrorists, and in the narrative economy of this book, they function in the same way AIDS did for some time in the Western consciousness—as a punishment for the damned. For a French intellectual (however unorthodox), AIDS has to be a central concern if only because the country’s most transgressive postwar thinker died of it, and Houellebecq’s left-wing editorialists who blame the sex tourists for offending Islam become the mirror image of the right-wing homophobes who accused early AIDS victims of promiscuity.

But what does it mean? Throughout the book, Arab apostates bad-mouth Islam in the most absolute terms, and as you pointed out, it would appear that Houellebecq takes the side of capitalism against these humorless sexual repressives. But isn’t there a sneaking sympathy at work here, too? Doesn’t the ego take pleasure in the occasionally violent reproaches of the superego? And doesn’t it also, finally, indicate a failure of nerve? My real problem with this book is that it transfers the blame outside the culture. With the terrorists, Houellebecq succumbs to his own reputation as provocateur. Violent death is tragic, but it is not a peculiarly modern tragedy. That tragedy, which Houellebecq wrote about with such fine Flaubertian brutality in TheElementary Particles, is precisely that we live on and on—and, in a culture that has made the youthful body into the supreme sexual object, we no longer find ourselves beautiful. Seeing this, and because of selfishness, confusion, despair—Houellebecq would add debasement—we mess up our lives and the lives of those around us. And then we have to live with that, in turn.

It’s fucked up.