When Michel Houellebecq’s second novel, The Elementary Particles, was published in France in 1998, it was considered something of a scandal. Houellebecq is the kind of writer who seems to be intent on offending everyone and Particles was, not unjustly, accused of being racist, misogynist, pornographic, misanthropic and just plain unpleasant. Even more impudent, for his French audience, was his laying at the feet of the revolutionary generation of May ’68 the blame for the malaise he was so intent on describing. For him, history’s long path toward a hard-won individualism had turned people into emotional zombies. But it also turned them into perfect consumers, estranged from each other and irresistibly drawn to the enticements of materialistic accumulation, constructing their identities from their responses to prefab trends. (The first English translation, which appeared in Britain, was called Atomized.)
Particles told the story of Michel, a withdrawn biologist, and his half-brother Bruno, a maladjusted teacher and scathing polemicist, following them from their grotesquely miserable childhoods to their equally miserable voided-out ends. With Bruno pursuing his sexual gratification with brutal single-mindedness and Michel floating through life in an asexual fog, the book covered the yin-yang of what Houellebecq apparently sees as a new and unconquerable alienation. Written with an eye toward the new millennium, it also poised humanity on the edge of a new paradigm, post-religion and post-materialism, a utopia devoid of all feelings aside from contentment, something achieved by Michel’s scientific breakthroughs as the book’s end rushed into a sci-fi future.
Where does one go from there? If Platform is any indication, the answer is not very far. This time the protagonist, another Michel, is like a combination of the previous Michel and Bruno, with the former’s doleful introspection being spiked by the latter’s consuming hedonism. This Michel, like his predecessors, is intelligent but rootless, a cool-eyed observer of the folly around him, coming alive only during sex — a textbook hedonist for whom happiness consists of coming to a full stop, physically sated for the moment. Everything else is flat and distant, as though viewed from the wrong end of a telescope.
The first part of the book concerns an organized vacation Michel takes in Thailand, a premise which, with its cross section of types — prudes, bimbos, unreasonably content retirees, embittered middle-aged men — allows Houellebecq to show off his knack for caricature and social satire. But satire for this author is like a byproduct of his main preoccupation, flowing as it does from Michel’s disenchanted gaze. For him (the fictional Michel), Thailand is an opportunity to sample Third World sex, to get it on with women who haven’t been tainted by the deadening freedoms granted by the modern capitalist democracies. In the book’s second half, Michel hooks up with an improbably accommodating mate and becomes involved, behind the scenes, in the tourist sex trade.
The sex scenes, which appear with predictable frequency throughout the book, are monotonously idealized (more so than in Particles) and quickly become tedious. Houellebecq specializes in a male version of Erica Jong’s “zipless fuck” fantasy, with the women willing and exceptionally able, and every blow job lovingly administered. You would think that a writer so aware of life’s unhappy surprises would allow at least one sexual encounter to include a leg cramp or an awkward moment, but no. It’s eroticism with no surprises and he reprises it over and over again — this is one of the few books where you might actually find yourself skimming through the “dirty” parts to get back to where the story picks up again.
But though the book is problematic, it’s also better than a summary might suggest. For one thing, Houellebecq has the saving grace of an expertly deadpan humor (both Particles and Platform are essentially dark comedies) that’s sprinkled throughout the book in the form of Michel’s aphoristic musings: “It is in our relations with other people that we gain our sense of our selves; it’s that, pretty much, that makes relations with other people so unbearable” is a fairly typical pensée. The flavor is like that of the late Romanian poet-philosopher E. M. Cioran (cf. Anathemas and Admirations, among others), offering wit in the form of dry despair. There’s also Houellebecq’s ability to bring into the story, in an interesting manner, a variety of topics, from Agatha Christie to the failure of the Cuban revolution, plus surprising moments of tender reflection that seem to come out of nowhere, contradicting one’s main impression of his leading men, who are all assholes and they know it.
Platform is interesting mainly as a follow-up to Particles, which is to say it’s interesting but a disappointment. The former book seemed audacious and a little crazy; the author’s obsessions seemed so personal that his attempt to generalize them into a widespread worldview was unconvincing, and yet many of the details were insightful and biting. He was scurrilous, rancorous and bemused. In Platform, the outrages are no longer fresh; he’s running over familiar ground and on a smaller scale. If he wants to regain our glowing disapproval, he’s going to have to try harder.
E-mail Richard C. Walls at [email protected].