Harper's Magazine : Love in the time of hedonism - August 2003

Discussed in this essay: Platform, by Michel Houellebecq. Translated by Frank Wynne. Knopf, 2003. 272 pages. $25. Of the two most inspected monuments in France, one belongs to the city of Paris and the other to Michel Houellebecq. Although appreciably smaller (it stands--when it stands--at approximately five inches), Houellebecq's commands indisputably more attention than the Eiffel Tower these days. This, in any case, is the impression one gleans from the controversy surrounding his books, all of which possess an unabashedly autobiographical bent. He is an unlikely sex god--this slight, unfashionable, forty-five-year-old Frenchman--and an even more improbable celebrity. At book parties in his honor, he's the stooped figure in the yellow windbreaker, the guy in the corner slurping down drinks and studying his fluorescent Nikes, the man who leaves early, whose voice trails off when you ask him a question. Inviting him to a meal, according to members of the Paris literati, is like "asking the plumber to lunch." But you wouldn't want to bank on the docility of this plumber: taciturn as Houellebecq can be, he has galvanized global attention with his inflammatory statements to journalists as much as with his "willfully pornographic" fiction. The former have landed him in the French courts for "incitement to racial hatred"; the latter has installed him firmly on international bestseller lists. It is with his second novel that Houellebecq seized literary celebrity. An earlier novel, Whatever, had provoked comparisons to Albert Camus but failed to propel its author to the attention of a larger public (he had also penned two poetry collections by that time, as well as a still overlooked biography of H. P. Lovecraft). Houellebecq remained a civil servant throughout it all, quietly debugging computers for the French ministry. And then, in 1998, came The Elementary Particles. The novel was not so much launched as "detonated," in the words of one reviewer. Packed with graphic renditions of variably transgressive sex--sadomasochistic, solitary, orgiastic, exhibitionistic, aquatic, pseudo-incestuous--it also bristled with offensive aphorisms about everything from women's liberation, racial equality, and personal freedom to individualism and the possibility of human intimacy. In many ways, it was one bleak book--"a deeply repugnant read," as Michiko Kakutani put it in the New York Times. It was also bracing, insistently thought provoking, and altogether original. It was graced, too, with a deadpan humor that provoked laughter in the midst of the most desolate depictions of human frailty. What most critics emphasized in their reviews, though, was Houellebecq's "frontal attack on the generation of '68" and on the vices it presumably unleashed upon the Western world: promiscuity, spiritual humbug, hedonism, a cult of youth, the apotheosis of individualism. The two heroes of The Elementary Particles are half brothers abandoned, as Houellebecq was, into the care of reluctant relatives by hippie parents with no more patience for their children than for their revolving lovers. One brother, Michel, has turned into a socially dysfunctional scientist "faithful to his local Monoprix." The other, Bruno, is a sex fiend who spends most of the novel ministering to the insatiable needs of his genitalia. The lives of these brothers, we are left to infer, have been ruined by the values of their "idiotic parents" and the "liberal, vaguely beatnik movement" their parents represent.


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