The Exile : 28/10/03 - Love Smites

Love Smites By John Dolan ( ) Browse Author (65) « Previous (64) "Platform" by Michel Houellebecq. Translated by Frank Wynne. Alfred Knopf, 2003 See it on Houellebecq’s hit novel the Elementary Particles was a great book—but as I said in my review (eXile #154), it came close to being a great failure, with some amateurish narrative wobbles that made reading it feel like riding beside a student driver in a tanker truck full of napalm. The eXile was also getting reports from a reliable French source that Houellebecq was a phony, entirely the creation of his publisher. The wildly uneven quality of Elementary Particles made that rumor seem plausible. I dreaded the appearance of Houellebecq’s next novel, and would have placed a sizable bet that it would be a disaster. I’d’ve lost that bet. Platform, Houellebecq’s new novel, is in some ways better than Elementary Particles. It’s a smaller book, without the science-fiction frame or ambition of EP, but a much more perfect, controlled performance. It reads like the work of a talented fiction-writer, rather than the translation to narrative of a brilliant aphorist’s work. That’s not to say that Platform is short on brilliant passing shots at a host of deserving contemporary cliches. In fact, it lays waste to a wide swath of pious cant, and does so without losing narrative momentum. In the process, Houellebecq makes you realize how tame, how cautious, provincial and anti-intellectual most English-language novelists are. He talks about everything from the economics of the tourism industry to the rival theories of consumer behavior with an easy confidence and healthy lack of respect. And he says wonderfully true and forbidden on almost every page. You read these tangential slashes at contemporary piety with the sudden ache of an unrealized hunger satisfied. Every time Houellebecq spotlights a piece of ordinary contemporary culture, it’s a delight. His limpid appreciations of small contemporary pleasures are as satisfying as his attacks. “Windows started up with a cheerful little sound,” he says, and it’s like hearing that sound for the first time. Perhaps a French writer is best placed to describe the slighted detail of contemporary life in the developed countries, writing from a country wealthy and confident enough to buy each new product, but consuming it with a residue of resentment, keeping up slightly grudgingly with the avalanche of novelties from its rival culture. God knows somebody needs to resent this crap. And Houellebecq does a great job of it, as in this account of a suspense novel the protagonist borrows from a sleeping neighbor on a long flight: “I picked up the paperback that had fallen at his feet: a shitty Anglo-Saxon bestseller by one Frederick Forsythe. I had read something by this halfwit that was full of heavy-handed eulogies to Margaret Thatcher and ludicrous depictions of the USSR as the ‘evil empire.’ I’d wondered how he managed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I leafed through his new opus. Apparently, this time the roles of the bad guys were played by Serb nationalists; here was a man who kept up with current affairs. As for his beloved hero, the tedious Jason Monk, he had gone back into service with the CIA, which had formed an alliance of convenience with the Chechen mafia. Well! I thought, replacing the book on my neighbor’s knees, what a charming sense of morality best-selling British authors have.” This isn’t the digression it seems. The argument of Houellebecq’s novel is that the West has gone insane, embracing its enemies and persecuting its own. “For the West, I do not feel hatred. At most I feel a great contempt. I know only that every single one of us reeks of selfishness, masochism, and death. We have created a system in which it has simply become impossible to live, and what’s more, we continue to export it.” Houellebecq’s plot is a simple demonstration of this thesis, via two genres you hardly expect from him: the murder-mystery and the love story. The book opens with the mystery: the protagonist’s father is found with his head bashed in. The death is no tragedy. The protagonist, Michel, quickly admits that he didn’t like his father very much. Even this admission is a relief for a reader accustomed to American narratives in which no family relationship can be accepted as shallow or sour, but must be redeemed by a canting, formulaic “epiphany” in which the parent’s deathbed becomes the scene of maudlin declarations of love. The mystery evaporates equally quickly when the killer confesses. He is the brother of the old man’s Muslim cleaning woman. He killed the old man when his sister confessed that she’d been having an affair with her employer. Thanks to the decadent French judicial system, the killer will get no more than a suspended sentence for killing an old man—a dramatic illustration of Houellebecq’s conviction that the West has turned on itself. The discovery of the killer marks the beginning of what is certainly the most sensational aspect of this novel: the explicit loathing and dread of Islam. Houellebecq’s view is that the “masochism and death” of the West is clear in its unwillingness to protect itself against the mindless fecundity and zeal of Islam, represented here by the sullen, stupid murderer, despised even by the sister he was supposedly protecting. If you want to skip to the most notorious and extreme expression of this view, the one that got him sued in France, go directly to page 250, where you’ll find this: “...I started to follow the international news again. Every time I heard that a Palestinian terrorist, or a Palestinian child or a pregnant Palestinian woman, had been gunned down in the Gaza Strip, I felt a quiver of enthusiasm at the thought of one less Muslim in the world. Yes, it was possible to live like this.” It’s a shocking passage, intended as such; yet what’s odd is that it’s exactly what 200 million Americans feel every night as they watch the news. Yet none of our writers would dream of saying such a thing, unless it was put in the mouth of some obviously discredited maniac. The love story begins when the murder mystery ends. Michel inherits a big chunk of money from his father and decides to join a tour group: “My dreams are run-of-the-mill. Like all the inhabitants of Western Europe, I want to travel.” Not only the dream but the plot-device is “run-of-the-mill,” but this banality is rigorous. Houellebecq wants to describe the norm, a task very difficult for post-Romantic poetics to accomplish. That task is carried out with merciless skill when Michel describes each member of his tour group in portraits so horribly precise you can’t help suspecting Houellebecq actually took one of these tours, making careful notes the whole time. Their ordinariness is one of the delights of the book. Why is it that English-speaking writers can’t do ordinariness—not Eichmann-as-banal-monster but the ordinariness of people just slightly above the norm? We always have to redeem the flat fact with some fake transcendence, or push it into zombie territory. Houellebecq, in the great Flaubertian tradition, fixes his eye on the ordinary and sketches it without mercy or love or any other consoling lies. The tour group quickly divides into the virtuous Leftists and the few dissidents who intend to take advantage of the opportunity to have sex with gorgeous Thai prostitutes. As always, Houellebecq doesn’t make the split mythic or touching; it’s simply a trait of the species: “Human groups of more than three people have a tendency, apparently spontaneous, to split into two hostile subgroups.” Michel is one of the unashamed hedonists, enjoying and describing in luscious detail his sessions with a beautiful and enthusiastic Thai massage girl. He does a great job of savaging the anti-sex, anti-pleasure attitude of Lonely-Planet style guidebooks: “All in all, these backpacking routards were bellyaching bastards whose goal was to spoil every little pleasure on offer to tourists, whom they despised....The most excruciating thing was probably their stern, dogmatic, peremptory tone, quivering with repressed indignation...they laid into ‘potbellied Westerners’ who strolled around with little Thai girls; it made them ‘literally puke.’ Humanitarian Protestant cunts, that’s what they were, they and the ‘cool bunch of mates who helped to make this book possible,’ their nasty little faces smugly plastered all over the back cover.” If you’ve ever waded through a Lonely Planet guide, you’ve felt this. But you’d have a hard time saying it nearly as well, or getting it into print if you did. It’s simple enough, Houellebecq’s scorn, but it’s so true and so long overdue that you inhale it, reread it a half dozen times, think up people and publishers you want to email it to—so hungry are you for a little truth. But the real beauty of Houellebecq’s polemic against the “humanitarian Protestant cunts” who rule us is revealed when Michel flings the Guide de Routard across his hotel room and picks up a Grisham novel left in the room by a previous guest. As his contemptuous summary shows, Grisham’s pulp is no more than the same HPC’s on their home ground. Then Michel develops an interest in Valerie, one of his fellow tourists, and to his own surprise, their relationship develops into deep trust and love. It’s not exactly the Tom Cruise version, since Michel and Valerie regularly engage in happy and pleasant group sex with anyone who strikes their fancy. What’s such a wonderful surprise about this novel is that Houellebecq manages to smite so many deserving targets so well while developing a convincing love story, the very last sort of plotline you’d expect from him. A second murder mystery ends the love story, when nameless Muslim terrorists kill Valerie just as she and Michel have decided to leave the rot of Europe to settle in Southern Thailand. One of the finest polemical touches of the novel is Houellebecq’s account of the way progressive French opinion gloats over the death of Valerie and fellow sex-tourists, crowing that these vile debauchees got no more than what they deserved. Something about the passage conveys with sickening force the full horror of Western Europe hijacked by “humanitarian Protestant cunts.” Speaking as a very unsatisfied consumer of Lonely Planet’s guide to Laos, I truly hope that this book provokes mass burnings of Lonely Planet and Guide de Routard travel books, especially those dealing with Southeast Asia. Anything that discomfits the “humanitarian Protestant cunts” who write and disseminate books like that is OK with me.


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