- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 26, 2003


By Michel Houellebecq

Translated from the French by Frank Wynne

Knopf, $25, 255 pages


French literature has had its share of bad boy poets and writers — Villon and Rabelais in centuries past and more recently Rimbaud and Celine. Now there is Michel Houellebecq whose second novel, “The Elementary Particles,” began earning its author fame and notoriety five years ago when it first appeared in French.

It has now come out in several languages. Part of the book’s fame sprang from it’s sexual explicitness. At times — and those times are frequent — “The Elementary Particles” is indistinguishable from pornography. But the novel’s notoriety also derived from its bleakness.

“The Elementary Particles” took it for granted that France’s and the West’s day had long since passed and would never come again. Humankind, the dour novelist writes in his epilogue, is a “vile, unhappy race” that is “infinitely selfish.”

Bad boy Houellebecq has been in deep trouble with bien-pensant French authorities who deplore his outspoken views on Islam which he regards as a mostly despicable religion. He has his own website (in mulitple languages: French, English, German and Italian) on whose homepage he appears with bad hair and in a black shirt, clutching that traditional prop of the French intellectual, a lit cigarette.

Mr. Houellebecq has published a new novel, “Platform,” and it is full of the same non-stop sex. Once again, it is described in great detail — the private coupling of lovers as well as visits to sex clubs where partners are multiple, to say the least. In this novelist’s world, seductions take no more than a very few seconds, if that. There is sexual prowess on an athletic, Olympian level. Shame seems almost nonexistent.

Yet if the two novels share similar attitudes when it comes to sex, they have little else in common. “The Elementary Particles” was often stunning in its mordant humor, its take-no-prisoners satire, and in the range of ideas it took up — weighty questions about the nature of individuality versus membership in a community and problems raised by current scientific thought, particularly in physics and molecular biology, to name only a few.

“Particles” was a complex novel. “Platform” is not. Its story is simple. Like Albert Camus’ “The Stranger,” it opens when its main character’s reaction to the death of a parent, a father this time, rather than a mother, as in Camus’ great novel. “Platform“‘s protagonist is Michel, an unmarried middling bureaucrat who works for the Ministry of Culture.

Michel didn’t like his father and has some nasty thoughts about the man. A man nearing middle age, his life is as hollow and shallow as the TV shows he’s addicted to — he particularly likes “Xena: Warrior Princess.” About his life, he observes: “Not only did I not vote, but I had never considered elections as anything more than excellent television shows — in which, to tell the truth, my favorite actors were the political scientists,” who serve as talking heads on the programs.

Michel goes off on an organized holiday to Thailand only with a troop of other Europeans from a variety of backgrounds. He has sex with the very available (and young) Thai women who sell themselves to tourists. He travels around the country, but never with much interest.

All is not lost, however. A French woman on the tour — Valerie, originally from Britanny — changes his life. On the tour, they hardly talk. But once back in France, they fall heavily for one another. Michel moves in with the far more successful Valerie who makes far more money than he does working for a tour agency called New Frontiers.

Their sex is better than anything he’s known. He’s surprised to find himself with feelings of love and tenderness that he hasn’t had, at least not in his adult sexual life. Valerie is recruited by an even bigger tour group, Aurora, where she makes even more money. They travel to Cuba. They return to Thailand.

It’s on that visit that Valerie announces that she’s abandoning her plush job and turning her back on France to live among the Thais, whose simplicity and honesty she admires. Michel opts to stay with her. Life in Paris without Valerie is unthinkable and he has no roots that bind him to Europe.

But suddenly the modern world rears its ugly self. Muslim terrorists stage an attack in Thailand in which Valerie is instantly killed. Michel lives on, mostly sunk into the sullen complacency that was his lot at the novel’s opening — with one exception. He now nurses hatred:

“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.”

Within the framework of that story, Mr. Houellebecq offers commentary in the form of aphorisms, some of which sound more preachy and tendentious than they do accurate or pungent: “It is wrong to pretend that human beings are unique, that they carry within them an irreplaceable individuality,” for example. Or they come across as a bit silly (and unnecessary because obvious) as in: “Our genitals exist as a source of permanent, accessible pleasure.”

On occasion, “Platform” does display the black humor of “Elementary Particles.” One of the artists that Michel deals with in his job at the Ministry of Culture “was chiefly famous for leaving rotting meat in young girls’ panties, or breeding flies in his own excrement and then releasing them into the [art] galleries.” Another artist has elaborate plans for a presentation involving live frogs and a deck of playing cards.

“Platform” could use more of that kind of satirical comment and less of the gloom which permeates the book. Michel quotes with lugubrious approval the German pessimist Schopenhauer who observed that we remember our own lives only “a little better than we do a novel we once read,” a claim that strikes this reviewer as dubious indeed.

At times, Mr. Houellebecq seems to set up scenes for no other reason that to provide himself with a platform to vent his vast disappointments with life. When he and Valerie go off to Cuba he talks with a Cuban who was an early revolutionary and ardent Castro supporter. The man has since grown profoundly betrayed by the course of the revolution in a country “where nothing really worked.” The Cuban visit also allows Michel to lacerate himself for his inability to repair any of the machinery that no longer works in Cuba and to see that “I was perfectly adapted to the information age — that is to say, good for nothing … I glanced around me, panic-stricken by this realization.”

Two Muslims likewise make appearances in the novel, only to mouth long tirades again their own civilization and religion. “Beggars covered with fleas, that’s what we are,” says one of them about Muslims in general and adds, “the desert has produced nothing but lunatics and morons.” The other assures Michel that the Muslim World is coming to an end. In this Arab Muslim’s opinion, “The Muslim way of life was doomed: capitalism would triumph. already, young Arabs dreamed of nothing but consumer products and sex.”

Even at the novel’s core — the passionate, loving relationship between Valerie and Michel — Mr. Houellebecq cannot resist the vapid platitudinizing that mars much of the book. When Michel explains to Valerie that he loves her because she’s spontaneous and giving, he uses these all-too-familiar words: “[T]hat’s what westerners don’t know how to do anymore. They’ve completely lost the sense of giving. Try as they might, they no longer feel sex as something natural.”

This is barely warmed-over Rousseau and his praise for natural man. Worse, it’s a generalization that doesn’t work but which carries a false profundity that many may find attractive because it disparages the West. Such talk also sounds genuinely hopeless, an attitude many (unfortunately ) seem to interpret as deep.

Mr. Houellebecq served up a similar philosophy, though with a great deal more ambiguity and more subtlety in “The Elementary Particles.” The point is that it’s not that he should have given us another “Particles.” It’s that he’s written a book that is very much like its predecessor, yet far weaker in many ways and will inevitably disappoint those who admired the earlier work.

Stephen Goode is senior writer at Insight magazine.

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