Platform, by Michel Houellebecq, trans. Frank Wynne

Europe's most inflammatory writer has raised the stakes again with a novel that lauds sex tourism and curses Islam. Boyd Tonkin separates sense from sensation in the work of a modern Sade

Saturday 31 August 2002 00:00
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"Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically." Thus begins a scandalous novel of illicit sexual adventures, of diatribes against spiritual decadence, and of fire-raising political asides. Michel Houellebecq loathes many things, among them the fantasy construction French pundits call "Anglo-Saxon" culture. So it seems unlikely that anyone has ever pointed out to the chief merde-stirrer of French fiction today how uncannily he echoes the bitter, dying D H Lawrence who wrote Lady Chatterley's Lover.

In Platform, his third novel, the revitalising role of gamekeeper Mellors is split between virtuoso Thai bar-girls ("a gift from heaven") and the doormat-like high-flier in the travel trade who wakes our lacklustre hero, her lover, with fresh coffee and fellatio. Yet, behind the brouhaha that Houellebecq provokes, one question still nags. Is the whore-loving, Muslim-baiting 44-year-old novelist who has stamped his name on a Euro-brand of millennial lassitude really "hunting big game" – as Julian Barnes wrote about his last novel, Atomised? Or is he cynically potting the feeble rabbits of post-Sixties liberal piety to thrill the kind of jaded reader who laps up anything that smacks of "political incorrectness"?

His fans routinely hail Houellebecq as a fearless, and fearsome, Sade or Céline for the age of dial-up porn, designer fetishism and long-haul package tours. For me, he can sometimes look more like the Ozzy Osbourne of modern French letters.

Which is not to say that Platform will not upset and offend. Yes, its plot portrays organised sex tourism to Third World countries as an "ideal trading opportunity": a valid coming-together of rich but enervated Westerners with poor but sappy locals, "who have nothing left to sell except their bodies". Yes, its many graphic sex scenes exhibit all the lyrical grace of a flatpack assembly booklet. Yes, the heroine Valérie – although she can earn £100,000 pa as a tour planner – improbably loves nothing better than to give pleasure to the mousy civil servant, Michel, who tells this tale. And, yes, Platform does launch a few tirades – unconvincingly, in the mouths of two pasteboard Arab characters – against the monotheistic rigour of Islam (that "inhuman murderous absurdity").

One of the dumb "Anglo-Saxons" Michel detests is Frederick Forsyth, whom he labels – on the basis of his Thatcherite thrillers – as a "dickhead". The funny thing is that Houellebecq in his shocking-rant mode sounds weirdly like the average op-ed piece by ... you know who. One day, they should get together for a cocktail.

There the prosecution rests. The defence, I believe, can still muster a more compelling case. With Houellebecq, Lawrence's "tragic age" of desiccated humanity moves into a new, posthuman, dimension. In Atomised, the geneticist brother who survives (while his sex-mad sibling sinks into madness) dreams of replacing humanity with a superior race of cyber-beings, beyond desire and beyond decay. Platform opts for droll and deadpan satire (on tourism, consumerism, the jargon of marketing) rather than mystical SF. Yet it also depicts the alienated trippers who seek paid-for oblivion in Thai or Cuban arms as people sick of life – drones and parasites for whom "the idea of the uniqueness of the individual is nothing more than a pompous absurdity".

Behind their search for "exotic" pleasure lurks a yearning to shed the self. In this light, that pioneer post-human Michael Jackson (neither black nor white, male nor female, young nor old) figures as the first true star "in the history of the world". This element of Houellebecq's vision – in which our frantic pursuit of happiness becomes a quest for extinction – takes aim for the biggest intellectual quarry any novelist could find in their sights now.

Moreover, Platform impresses mightily with its close-focus attention to the callous business of creating, and exploiting, the desires of all these clapped-out hedonists. The vacant Michel has inherited money from an unloved father, but still works as a minor cultural bureaucrat (cue some deft gags on Tracey Emin-style conceptual art). His first trip to Thailand not only unveils the delights of hostess bars, but hitches him up with the dynamic, yet geisha-like, Valérie.

Houellebecq inspects her professional milieu – of trend-surfing tourism – with a devastatingly keen eye. He mingles solid research with a wealth of sly comic touches. When her bosses swallow Michel's proposal to turn their ailing Club Med-style resorts into discreet brothels, they sigh with relief. The skin trade means "no more salaries to be paid to registered pediatric nurses or windsurfing instructors; nor to specialists in ikebana, ceramics or painting on silk".

Michel, the archetypal consumer, devours airport novels. (He hates John Grisham, but admires The Beach.) And, along with its erotic escapades and metaphysical excursions, Platform delivers the low-down on a glitzy but rotten global trade. This level of insider detail one usually finds only in mass-market fictive operators such as ... well, a certain Mr Forsyth.

More surprisingly, the novel doesn't merely run on irony and rancour. Michel's rat-on-a-wheel Paris routine plangently captures the melancholy of sex-saturated consumer culture, with its victims trapped "like insects in lumps of amber". Later, Houellebecq grants the glittering Thai landscapes of beach and jungle an almost innocent splendour. He pays homage, as "a child of Europe, of worry and of shame", to the body-friendly Buddhism that shaped the local life. And, in their escape into the flesh, he even allows Michel and Valérie genuine tenderness: "In the absence of love, nothing can be sanctified".

It all ends in blood and tears, as we expect. Islamic terrorism erupts here as a vague deus ex machina, or even as a self-induced punishment for washed-up Europeans who "reek of selfishness, masochism and death". As mutilated foreign lechers lie in the wreckage of their bombed sex club, Michel hears "the genuine screams of the damned".

Perhaps that phrase just slipped out, unwittingly. Perhaps not. Anyone on nodding terms with the history of French literary outrage knows what can happen to its dandies and demons. Historically, their road of excess often leads out of the "tragic age" of narcissism and nihilism – and directly to the altar. Sooner or later, will we all be bored stiff by the internet homilies of Cardinal Houellebecq? The distance from Platform to pulpit may be shorter than he thinks.

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