The sexual bomb thrower

It's been called pornographic, adolescent, racist and xenophobic, but Michel Houllebecq's "Platform" is a brilliant study of the sexual condition of the Western world.

Published August 2, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

I stopped reading Michel Houellebecq's last novel, "The Elementary Particles," right around the scene where the narrator bashes in the head of a cat after the animal has watched him masturbating. By then, I felt I'd been watching Houellebecq masturbate for pages, and I escaped while my own noggin was still intact. If you wanted to parody French nihilism, and blase contempt for everyone and everything, you couldn't improve on "The Elementary Particles." It was one of those books where the author is so determined to shock and offend, that boredom seemed the only rational response.

I haven't changed my mind on that book, but it's a bit embarrassing to admit feeling that way when so many of the reviews of Houellebecq's brilliant new novel, "Platform," are affecting just that pose. "Even if his position is just a posture," wrote Toby Clements in the British paper the Telegraph, "it is at least an amusing one." Amusing ... the perfect adjective to use when we don't want to give too much credence to a book's ideas, when we want to say that we may be entertained but, ho, ho, we're not taken in. The British are particularly adept at this, and most of the U.K. reviews of "Platform" (with some notable exceptions, like Anita Brookner, who said that by comparison English novels fall "by the wayside") follow suit. In the Guardian, novelist James Buchan goes out of his way to show he's not swayed by Houellebecq's "bar-room opinions." "He reads like an adolescent," writes Buchan, "alternately timid and aggressive, solemn, hormonal, posturing, helpless." On BBC News Online, Alex Webb rather sniffily talks about "the unattractiveness of [Houellebecq's] views," which admits distaste while carefully avoiding any discussion of their substance. Even the good reviews seem embarrassed to be praising the book. In the New York Times Book Review, Jenny Turner of the London Review of Books gives "Platform" a positive review while managing to discount every one of its central ideas as "naive ... embarrassingly infantile ... reactionary ... xenophobic."

So let's get it out of the way -- Houellebecq is impolite, strident, sometimes showily cruel, and determined to offend. "Repetitive, one-sided, subtle as a jackhammer," Michael Harris wrote in an admiring review of "The Elementary Particles" in the Los Angeles Times, and he's not wrong. There are moments in "Platform" as well where you wish some editor had told Houellebecq that he simply didn't have to work so hard to jolt us. He has to tell us that an old man who dies from a blow to the head has his brains spill over a concrete floor. When one character escapes death after being gang-raped, Houellebecq makes sure to include a description of the rapists' usual method of killing their victims. A business meeting in an office complex sealed off from the dangerous neighborhood outside coincides with the murder of an old lady by a street gang. The narrator masturbates at a peep show while he imagines the fat, stupid (his description) intern who works in his office gorging chocolate cake at a patisserie. Like Houellebecq's tirades against American and British pop literature (which are nonetheless frequently hilarious), these scenes are cheap examples of "epater le bourgeoisie," and they are easy to discount.

The rest of "Platform" is not so easily discounted. Some critics have said that Houellebecq has written a novel of ideas -- a reliable way to scare off potential readers if ever there was one. What he has written is a novel of provocations -- sexual, cultural, political, racial. And even if you find half of them too simple, even when the philosophizing and theorizing that attend them grow tiresome, they have a hard rational core that demands they at least be grappled with. (It doesn't hurt that "Platform," written in a casual, conversational style, reads like a shot.)

Houellebecq opens with a deliberate echo of the opening of Camus's "The Stranger" ("Maman died today"): "Father died today." The narrator, like the author, is named Michel. He's a 40-something civil servant, working in a government bureau that funds cultural events. A loner, alienated but not dead to the world, he is almost comically typical of French heroes, unable to feel passion in his work or his life. He takes care of his sexual urges at peep shows or in unsatisfying encounters with prostitutes. The death of his father affords him a sudden financial windfall and he rouses himself from his lethargy to embark on a tour of Bangkok. There he meets Valérie, whom he's attracted to but whom he does not take up with until after the tour, when they are both back in Paris.

It seems especially hard for Houellebecq's critics to credit him with writing a love story, but nonetheless that's what the relationship between Michel and Valérie is. The primary objection seems to be that the relationship is based on the couple's sexual chemistry, and some critics have found the fact that Valérie is bisexual, adventurous and enthusiastic makes her little more than a male fantasy. There may be an element of truth to that (what straight man wouldn't want a woman like that?). But what seems foreign to Houellebecq's critics is not just the idea that a woman's sexual appetite can equal a man's (which is just the old Victorian notion of a woman's proper lack of interest in sex done up in new feminist garb), but that a relationship can sustain itself if the sex is good. If that's true for people who don't get along out of bed, why shouldn't it be true for people who do?

The critical comments on the sex scenes in "Platform" -- Alex Webb: "[the] adolescent quality to the frequent descriptions of sex in the book"; James Buchan: "the incontinent love of sexual description"; Lee Henderson in the Toronto Globe & Mail: "almost rigourously cliched sex scenes"; Toby Clements in the Telegraph: "pornographic" -- are much more revealing of the critics than of Houellebecq. They employ "pornographic" in the frequent and lazy manner used to dismiss the explicit. Webb inadvertently betrays the prejudice of the critics when he refers to the "adolescent" quality of the sex. Sex, it still seems, is the one major area of human experience considered unworthy of intellectual respect, as if we should all live entirely in our heads instead of equally in our bodies. And if we acknowledge that we have penises or vaginas that get hard or moist, we've immediately marked ourselves as unworthy of adult consideration. (How, you wonder, do these critics read Lawrence?)

Houellebecq gives the lie to these charges. For writers who are out only to shock, sex is the easiest route to the sordid. What strikes you about the sex in "Platform" is how tender it is. Michel and Valérie take pleasure in each other and enjoy giving it. Houellebecq is not coy about what that pleasure consists of. He writes about enjoying each other's smells and secretions. In the book's view, Westerners have become alienated from their own bodies, and when reviewers claim shock at lovers who enjoy the taste of their partner's vagina or sperm, or the look on their partner's face when he or she is on the brink of orgasm, they are inadvertently affirming Houellebecq's view. Even when Michel and Valérie involve other partners -- when Valérie invites a chambermaid to join them on holiday, or when they visit a swing club and spend the night having sex with an attractive couple they meet -- Houellebecq doesn't use the sex as an example of decadence or spiritual corruption. The frequency of the sex in "Platform" is true to the burst of erotic energy that accompanies the beginning of any relationship. And it's worth noting that Michel imagines he can be happy with Valérie even when their sexual life has ebbed.

What depresses Michel (and Houellebecq) is the type of sex divorced from the human connection that is possible even in casual encounters. That's what leaves him unsatisfied with Western prostitutes, and it's what repulses him on a trip to a hardcore S/M club (where neither he nor Valérie participate). Houellebecq rides roughshod over the justification that the clubgoers who are shackled or have hooks inserted into their scrotums are consenting adults. They may be, but in his view what they are consenting to is the invasion of the soullessness that inhabits too much of our lives into sex as well, the place that is the greatest source of pleasure. S/M becomes, as Houellebecq has Valérie say, the perfect metaphor for a society that has become divorced from pleasure, alienated from its physical self. "What scares me about it all," she says, "is that there's no physical contact. Everyone wears gloves, uses equipment. Skin never touches skin, there's never a kiss, a touch, or a caress. For me, it's the very antithesis of sexuality." Michel sums it up, "When there's no longer any possibility of identifying with the other, the only thing left is suffering -- and cruelty." Later he says, "Organized S&M with its rules could only exist among overcultured, cerebral people for whom sex has lost all attraction."

In some ways, Houellebecq is right on the cusp between libertinism and conservatism (though it's hard to make the latter stick to someone who is so strongly in favor of sexual freedom). Those inclined to view Houellebecq as conservative may find support when he details his reasons for what he sees as the West's alienation from its own sexuality. In his view, women have joined men in becoming so preoccupied with their careers that sex simply becomes another need to be fulfilled. With the demands of our work leeching into every area of our lives, including the bedroom, the possibility of human contact in sex diminishes. The resulting irony is that people turn to sex workers, the one profession where bringing your work to bed does not get in the way of sex. "They'll find it easier to pay for sex too," he says of women, "and they'll turn to sex tourism."

This isn't exactly new stuff. Norman Mailer was prophesizing 40 years ago about the effect that women joining the corporate world would have on sex. But it's less retrograde than it sounds. Michel doesn't think that women should have to abandon their careers -- he has no problem with the fact that Valérie has a more lucrative and demanding job than he does. Houellebecq's view applies to both sexes and it's one of the uncomfortable parts of "Platform" that's affirmed by our experience. How many people do you know who complain that the demands of their jobs leave them less time for a personal life? And in a global economy that often demands both partners work, it's hardly sexist to note that sex will be one of the first casualties.

This, according to Houellebecq, is the sexual condition of the West. In one scene he says of Westerners, "Try as they might, they no longer feel sex as something natural. Not only are they ashamed of their own bodies, which aren't up to porn standards, but for the same reasons they no longer feel truly attracted to the body of the other. It's impossible to make love without a certain abandon, without accepting, at least temporarily, the state of being in a state of dependency, or weakness ... it's not a domain in which you can find fulfillment without losing yourself. We have become cold, rational, acutely conscious of our individual existence and our rights; more than anything, we want to avoid alienation and dependence; on top of that, we're obsessed with health and hygiene. These are hardly ideal conditions in which to make love."

And it gives rise to one of the thorniest parts of "Platform": its affirmation of sexual tourism. Valérie has an executive job in the tourist business. When her boss, Jean-Yves, is offered a lucrative position with an industry giant, he takes Valérie, whom he depends on and trusts, with him. Their assignment is to revitalize the company's exotic resorts, which are unable to find a foothold in a market dominated by Club Med. Michel accompanies Valérie and Jean-Yves on an undercover fact-finding jaunt to one of the company's clubs in Cuba where they pass as tourists to experience the services firsthand. When Jean-Yves and Valérie are stuck for a way to give the company's resorts the leg up they need, Michel suggests turning them into sex resorts where the local sex workers can ply their trade. This is how he presents the idea:

"The fact is that from about the age of twenty-five or thirty, people find it very difficult to meet new sexual partners. Yet they still feel the need to do so, it's a need that fades very slowly. So they end up spending the next thirty years, almost the entirety of their adult lives, suffering permanent withdrawal ... Therefore ... you have several hundred million westerners who have everything they could want but no longer manage to obtain sexual satisfaction. They spend their lives looking without finding it, and they are completely miserable. On the other hand, you have several billion people who have nothing, who are starving, who die young, who live in conditions unfit for human habitation, and who have nothing left to sell except their bodies and their unspoiled sexuality. It's simple, really simple to understand: it's an ideal trading opportunity. The money you could make is almost unimaginable, vastly more than from computers or biotechnology, more than the media industry; there isn't a single economic sector that is comparable."

As is often the case with Houellebecq, the oversimplifications in that idea vie with the truths. The explication above is, on some level, simply another variation on the theme of the uptight Westerner being led back to his true nature by the exoticism of the natives (though you could argue that view, condescending as it may be, is far less complimentary to the West). In the New York Times Book Review, Jenny Turner accuses Houellebecq of presenting a vision of sex tourism that is "grotesquely idealized." It's true that none of the Eastern prostitutes he meets are abused, none of them forced into the profession by others or sold into it as children. That doesn't mean he is ignorant of the uglier facts of their lives. Houellebecq acknowledges that, by one estimate, one-third of Thai bar girls are HIV-positive. One of the girls talks to Michel about the clients who want to beat her. Another says that she doesn't like her work but had no choice after her husband left her with two small children. "They didn't have an easy job, those girls," Michel reflects at one point. "They probably didn't come across a good guy all that often, someone with an okay physique who was honestly looking for nothing more than mutual orgasm."

Those reservations may not go far enough for some, but if critics like Turner are objecting that Houellebecq's portrait of sexual tourism isn't accurate, it's hard to imagine they would raise the same objection to an equally inaccurate picture that equated all sexual tourism with slavery, that assumed every woman working as a prostitute was forced into it, and that denied that there were any advantages for women in sex work. In a passage that could fit quite comfortably into "Platform," a character in John Burdett's novel "Bangkok 8," a former Thai prostitute who's become a madam, puts it this way:

"This kind of Western hypocrisy disgusts me, quite frankly. Why doesn't the BBC make a documentary on the rag trade, with all those women working twelve hours a day for less than a dollar an hour? What is that if it's not selling your body? The West doesn't care about exploitation of our women, it simply has a problem with sex and at the same time they're using sexual titillation to sell their shows. They love to embarrass middle-aged white men who hire our girls. Western women can't handle it that their men get a better time over here. If they're too mean-spirited to give their men pleasure, that's their problem. The bottom line is that it's about money. Thailand makes very little income from industries like the clothing industry -- Western companies take the lion's share. But in the sex trade we see a true redistribution of global wealth from East to West. That's what got them so hung up."

That's echoed somewhat by the English literary critic Ian Littlewood in his "Sultry Climates," a sexual history of the Grand Tour. Littlewood writes, "Why, for example, does sexual exploitation trouble us so much more than the various kinds of exploitation that provide us with cheaper consumer goods? The process by which other people's lives are blighted for our convenience is not, after all, peculiar to the sex trade."

"Platform" has been called the "A Modest Proposal" of sex tourism, and like Swift's essay, the safest, shallowest way to dodge its implications and distance yourself from its logic to is to fall back on the safe position of appreciating it as a wicked satiric exercise. Reading "Platform," the same as reading Swift, requires you to take the writer's reasoning seriously, meet it head on and, if you find it repulsive, refute it.

Houellebecq takes obvious delight in skewering conventional liberal pieties about the sex trade. It's true that his ideological opponents are often straw men, like the strident, sexually hysterical woman who inveighs against sex tourism during his trip to Bangkok. But what may be most infuriating to some readers and critics is that Houellebecq insists that moral outrage by itself is not enough -- that it does nothing to address the reality of these women's lives. Houellebecq is implicitly asking the critics of sex tourism here, Given the economic realities of these countries, what alternative would you propose to allow these women to make a comparable income? And if you can't come up with one, are you implying that it would be better for them to live in poverty than to offend your sense of propriety? You don't have to agree with Houellebecq to see the point he's making about the narcissism of moral outrage -- how it's often used to demonstrate moral superiority rather than address the issue at hand.

It may be equally upsetting to some that while Houellebecq understands the distance that inevitably separates prostitutes from customers, he insists that these transactions can be conducted with respect and even tenderness on both sides. Houellebecq takes the old joke, "Would you patronize a prostitute? -- answer: "No, I'd treat her as an equal" -- and puts flesh on it. Like the other sexual encounters in "Platform," Michel's experiences with prostitutes are anything but dingy and unfeeling. If they don't match the connection he makes with Valérie, they are connections nonetheless.

The moral conundrum that sex tourism represents in "Platform" is that it is simultaneously a vision of sex turned into yet one more consumer commodity and also one of the only forms of sexual human connection left to the alienated West. It's crucial to keep in mind the less-than-flattering vision of the West in "Platform" when dealing with an even more explosive part of the book, its portrait of Islam. "Platform" has been called an anti-Islam book and I want to be very clear about that -- it is. It does not, however, follow that it is a racist book. It's hard to make that claim when Houellebecq has Michel say, "It's true, Muslims on the whole aren't worth much," or to describe them as "blood clots" in the "migratory flow crisscrossing Europe like blood vessels." When Houellebecq indulges in those cracks, he's making it easier for his critics to charge him with racism.

But there is no reason that a writer can't take an intellectual or moral position against a system of beliefs. What Houellebecq has come up against, though, is not just politically correct multi-culti attitudes that demand we have respect for all cultures, but the squeamishness that rears its head whenever someone attempts to criticize a religion. "Editorial writers think they're serving the interests of democracy when they ask us to deny the evidence of our senses," Pauline Kael wrote in her review of "Mean Streets." She could have been talking about today's editorialists who insist that the phenomenon of priests sexually abusing kids has nothing to do with Catholicism, or the editorialists insisting that Islamic fundamentalism has nothing to do with Islam. The usual protests are that Islamic extremism represents a very small percentage of Muslims, which is no doubt true. But it's not unfair to wonder why that large segment has been so quiet or so equivocal in their condemnation. And it's not unfair to bring up the danger that Arab intellectuals put themselves in when they have criticized Islam.

Of course, sooner or later someone is bound to bring up the Inquisition and the Crusades to prove that Christianity is just as brutal. But the gulf of centuries between those events and the present simply points out that today there is no religion but Islamic fundamentalism that is involved in mass killings in the name of a god on a global scale. This is not to suggest that Islamic fundamentalism is medieval. Authors like Paul Berman and the British political writer John Gray have insisted that fundamentalist Islam shares a religious mystical utopianism with all totalitarian movements of the 20th century -- communism, Nazism, fascism. What makes it hard to see that is that though Islamic fundamentalism avails itself of modern technology and the totalitarian dreams of mass murder that surfaced in the last century, the world it seeks to bring about feels like one that could only have been conceived by people afraid not just of progress, but of common sense -- the ultimate fantasy of willfully ignorant piety.

There's no denying that part of the excitement of "Platform" is the force with which Houellebecq says the unsayable, his determination to cut through moral equivocation and, in Kael's words, to not deny the evidence of his own senses. It's no surprise that a writer who spends so much time equating what it means to be human with the ability to feel pleasure would be repulsed by the asceticism of Islam, would see the religion's prohibitions as life denying, would see its misogyny as particularly noxious. Far from feeling defensive about his position, Houellebecq aims here to put those who don't share his loathing on the defensive. Is he extreme? Unquestionably. But it's sometimes just this impolite extremity that can shake up complacent notions. And the challenge he is putting out is one that calls for an answer -- namely, what is it that keeps liberals from condemning a culture that embodies everything they rightly hate? The persecution of women and gays, the refusal to recognize a separation between church and state, state (and thus theocratically) controlled press, the impossibility of scientific inquiry.

Of course, there will always be some smartass around, devoid of the ability to make distinctions, who will claim that sounds just like America under Bush. Though it should be pointed out that the ability to complain of Bush's erosion of the separation of church and state implies a society where the distinction exists. But try to find equivalents for the stories that keep turning up in the papers. The New York Times reported last week on a 9-year-old Iraqi girl who was raped and who has since then been beaten every day by her brothers for bringing shame on the family. Try to find our equivalent of the Bangaldeshi writer Taslima Nasrin, who has had a fatwa on her head since 1994 for protesting the persecution and torture of women in Bangladesh. Or an equivalent for the Nigerian woman sentenced to be stoned to death for having a child out of wedlock. Or the Saudi girls who burned to death in a fire at their dormitory because, having escaped, clerics sent them back into the building to cover themselves. This, Houellebecq rightly says, can have no meaning but barbarism and ignorance.

Houellebecq has been accused of being sneaky for, in Jenny Turner's words, putting his "nasty digs at Muslims in the mouths of friendly Arabs." But he's putting those digs squarely in the mouths of the people who have firsthand experience of Islamic fundamentalism. You have to consider just which characters make those remarks in "Platform." They include a North African woman whose Western lover is murdered by her brother ("They get blind drunk on pastis and all the while they strut around pretending to be the guardians of the one true faith, and they treat me like a slut because I prefer to go out and work rather than marry some stupid bastard like them"); an Egyptian who feels that the restrictions of Islam have retarded Arab culture ("The closer a religion comes to monotheism ... the more cruel and inhuman it becomes"); and a Jordanian banker who delivers an eulogy for Islam.

"The paradise promised by the Prophet," the banker tells Michel, "already existed here on earth. There were places on earth where young, available, lascivious girls danced for the pleasure of men, where one could become drunk on nectar and listen to celestial music; there were about twenty of them within five hundred meters of our hotel. These places were easily accessible. To gain admission, there was absolutely no need to fulfill the seven duties of a Muslim nor to engage in holy war; all you had to do was pay a couple of dollars ... Already, young Arabs dreamed of nothing but consumer products and sex. They might try to pretend otherwise, but secretly, they wanted to be part of the American system. The violence of some of them was no more than a sign of impotent jealousy, and thankfully, more and more of them were turning their backs on Islam."

That passage is a melancholy version of the headline that appeared in the Onion a few weeks after Sept. 11: "Hijackers Shocked, Surprised to Find Themselves in Hell." If that passage is considered racist, then so too must Thomas Friedman's columns predicting that Western capitalism will eventually spell the end of radical Islam. (In Friedman's view, or in Houellebecq's, the temptations of a consumer culture become harder to resist when people to whom they seem a luxury get a chance to obtain them.) In fact, the further you get into "Platform," the harder it is not to think that Houellebecq's crime was to say these things as a white Westerner. Nobody accused Hanif Kureishi (who is on record as admiring the novel) of racism for his satire of the Muslims supporting the fatwa against Salman Rushdie in his novel "The Black Album." Nor were there any charges leveled at Zadie Smith for her parody of Muslims in "White Teeth."

"Platform" was written before Sept. 11, before the murder of tourists in Bali, before the attack last October on the Moscow theater, before the kidnapping of Western tourists in Algeria. Because it includes an attack on Western sex tourists by Islamic terrorists, "Platform" has been called prophetic. That is to deny the power and clarity of Houellebecq's vision, to indulge in what Berman has identified as the Eurocentrism that, following the fall of Communism, led the West to conclude that all those exotic, funny countries posed no threat to us. It's ironic that a writer who has been accused of racism has written a novel in which, though his narrator proclaims he has no knowledge of the modern world, the fates of the West and East are inextricably linked. If there's anything prophetic in "Platform," it's the section that must have seemed satirical to Houellebecq when he wrote it: editorials in French newspapers condemning the attack but saying that the Westerners had it coming. "Faced," one of Houellebecq's fictional editorialists writes, "with the hundreds of thousands of women who have been sullied, humiliated, and reduced to slavery throughout the world -- it is regrettable to have to say this -- what do the deaths of a few of the well-heeled matter?" You can hear echoes of that in Noam Chomsky's lie that as many people were killed in the American bombing raid in Sudan as in the Sept. 11 attacks, or in Michael Moore's contention that this is what happens when Americans want their Nikes.

For all its intemperance, all of its giving in to invective, all of the things that Houellebecq's provocations leave out, there is irreducible truth in "Platform" and the satisfaction of seeing an author realize large ambitions without sacrificing his story. The imprecations against the book are worrying, not because they are so intellectually sloppy and as reactionary as they claim the book to be, but because they suggest a sense of diminished expectations for what a novel can be, a lack of belief that it's part of a novel's job to provoke and disturb and to confront us with what we don't want to know. "Platform" is also a book that, while abjuring sentimentality, believes in the redemptive potential of love, that aims to rescue sex from mechanization and put it back in the realm of mystery and ecstasy and even sacrament.

The end of that banker's story -- "He himself had been unlucky. He was an old man now, and he had been forced to build his whole life on a religion he despised" -- can also serve as the end of Michel's story, the Westerner in exile from the new religion of depersonalization loose in his homeland. There's an echo to be found, not only of Michel's pronouncement of his ultimate fate ("I'll be forgotten. I'll be forgotten quickly") but of the melancholy that settles over the end of this book in the lines that close Elvis Costello's album "All This Useless Beauty": "I want to vanish/ This is my last request/ I've given you the awful truth/ now give me my rest." Houellebecq earns those lines, but it seems unlikely he will vanish.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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