15 December, 2002Issue 2.1EuropeFictionLiteratureTranslation

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Confused Extremes

Anna Lynskey

Michel Houellebecq
Frank Wynne, trans.
Platform [Platforme]
Heinemann, 2002
362 pages

Michel Houellebecq
Frank Wynne, trans.
Atomised [Les Particules Elementaires]
Vintage, 2001
384 pages

In 1998 The New York Times wrote off Michel Houellebecq’s controversial novel Atomised as ‘a bad, self-conscious pastiche of Camus, Foucault and Bret Easton Ellis’. While this is overly damning, the author’s pretensions to philosophy, social analysis, and cultish subversion in Atomised do ring a little false. For instance, his attempts to forge a humanism grounded in atomic genetics are half-baked: he writes that one of the protagonists, Michel, ‘was able, through somewhat risky interpretations of the postulates of quantum mechanics, to restore the possibility of love’. But even such drivel cannot drown out the novel’s ambition and originality.

In Atomised, Houellebecq speculates on the ‘last metaphysical mutation’ of the human race not because the genetically manipulated future he carves out will become a reality but to force us, by delegitimising ‘revolutionary’ or ‘alternative’ ideas, to question the very notion that ours is an enlightened and progressive age. According to the author, we merely perpetuate the same cutthroat individualism that dates back to medieval Christianity.

Houellebecq is particularly scathing in his dismissal of post-structuralist thought: he looks forward to the ‘global ridicule’ awaiting such academics as ‘Foucault, Lacan, Derrida and Deleuze’, and he sees deconstruction not as a recognition of our meaninglessness, but as the acme of self-deceiving individualism. The ‘decentred self’ remains a selfish unit; the death of hierarchy merely nurtures the cult of the individual and an incoherent, deviant society. Houellebecq’s own post-post-modernist vision looks towards the obliteration of the self by a biogenetic clamping down on diversity. This is a questionable, but nonetheless fascinating premise.

Sadly, such conceptual flights of fancy are noticeably absent from Platform, the author’s latest work. Its world of sex and racism is one-dimensional, insistently focused on the sordid and the inhuman. The genius of Atomised lay in its complexity, its intertwining of scenes and speculations. Platform offers less variety. The S & M clubs of petit bourgeois France and the Thai sex industry blend together into a grey fog that not even the novel’s terrorist attack can colour. Perhaps Houellebecq deserves credit for this mundane tone; having previously outlined a fantastical blueprint for humankind, he wants to impress upon his readership the drab squalidness of its present plight. However, he achieves this by lazily cherry-picking from the earlier work, fusing the brothers from Atomised into one dull civil servant/peepshow aficionado (also) named Michel, and leaving us only a diluted version of the boredom and grubby decadence he’s already outlined.

Michel uses his sizeable inheritance to take a tour to Thailand, where he meets Valerie, a beautiful bisexual nymphomaniac. On their return to Paris, the pair work together on creating a Club Med-style sex resort, a swinger’s Far Eastern ‘Pussy Paradise’. It is difficult to judge whether or not the author is in favour of such promiscuity, a query also raised by Atomised, in which he asked if this kind of selfish exploitation is too high a price to pay for personal autonomy.

In Platform, the antithesis of hedonistic sex tourism is the Thai-Islamic fundamentalist group that brings carnage to the middle-aged European pleasure-seekers. Houellebecq is not known for his patience with Islam; in an interview with Lire magazine he declared it to be ‘the dumbest religion’. Muslim-bashing seems an urgent project of the novel from the start, with Michel’s father being murdered by an unstable Muslim on a point of honour.

However, the fact that Houellebecq offers Islam as an opposition to the sexual hedonism he seems to find so distasteful muddies the waters. Does he consider Islam an evil creed seeking to wreak havoc on ‘innocent’ white middle-class Europeans? Or does he believe that his countrymen’s unthinking quest for self-gratification encourages terrorism? Perhaps it is irrelevant. Maybe the severity of his polemic is a last-ditch attempt to inject a bit of interest into the flabby prose and soft porn into which his novel sinks.

A generous critic might conclude that Platform, as an extension of its predecessor, does not have to explicate the same philosophy a second time around. From this perspective, we could view the justification of both sexual capitalism and jihad as symptomatic of the selfishness of the twenty-first century: the individual is elevated to the extent that we cease to comprehend truly the suffering of the other.

Other critics would—perhaps rightly—see this as pseudo-academic posturing, searching to give a rational meaning to a work that spits with hatred. Writing in The Guardian, Salman Rushdie declares Platform to be the novel to go to ‘if you want to understand the France beyond the liberal intelligentsia, the France that gave the Left such a bloody nose in the last presidential election’.

Certainly, it must be dealt with on its own terms, as a book bred in a confused climate of bitterness and introspection. Platform veers away from the enticing Calvino-esque theoretics of Atomised to act as a counterbalance to both the ineluctable Derrida and the slick French scene responsible for the soft-focus whimsy of Amelie. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether Houellebecq’s work is in fact anything but despairing pornography, destined to rail impotently against the society he so unsparingly portrays.

Anna Lynskey is a second year undergraduate reading English at Magdalen College, Oxford. She is studying medieval and renaissance literature. Anna is the books editor of Europa Magazine.