The French have a reputation for sexy stuff so artistic (meaning transgressive, clinical, incoherent, and/or theoretical) that no one really has to feel dirty. In fact, this is what the French are for: intelligentsia porn. Every couple years, or months or hours, along comes The Piano Teacher or Catherine Millet or Breillat, and it’s a sensation. Except in France, where it’s just another movie, or memoir, or sadomasochistic light opera.
This makes the career of Michel Houellebecq all the more impressive, in that he actually seems to have convinced his countrymen he is really pornographic, and moreover seems to have convinced himself he is so reviled he must live abroad—the exiled prince of French letters. His last novel, The Elementary Particles, features two brothers who may in fact be a single person and who, between ’em, have a paired set of sexual experiences that allows for the scientific discovery of immortality. Excellent. It’s sort of like Fight Club, without any of the liberalism: Fuck Club.
It’s also, in un certain regard, a vicious satire of the French generation of 1968 (“soixante-retards,” my friend Louis-Georges calls them), which apparently strikes a resonantly vitriolic chord with anyone who grew up feeling oppressed by the insipid political blandishments, self-righteous nostalgia, and betrayed radicality of a never-really-revolutionary neo-bourgeoisie. Can I tell you how fun that sentence was to write?
Here at world headquarters, the boomer-resentment index is always rising. Nonetheless, America doesn’t really have France’s intergenerational agon, the same way New York doesn’t have a gay Socialist mayor à la Paree, and won’t in the foreseeable future (gay will happen long before Socialist: discuss). Since the politics don’t translate as more than dyspepsia, most stateside Houellebecquistes are left without the fine distinctions, and with the usual booty: a cultural patina on a brass cock ring.
This seems more or less OK with our homme away from home; Platform offers considerably fewer social appurtenances than Particles, and gets to the warm, moist blowjobs and moist, warm swingers’ clubs without too much hesitation. Actually, it starts with Michel invoking Albert Camus (“Father died last year” is the first sentence) and, alienation thus established, heading off to Southeast Asia on a package tour he admits up front is “sexual tourism.” Despite available intimacies with fellow sojourner Valerie, he takes the easy way in with a few Thai nubiles-for-hire, and returns to gray, non-paradisiacal Paris. Back home, he promptly hooks up with Valerie, who turns out to be the babe of his dreams, and they are very happy together.
Michel and Valerie consume each other in an unhesitant and satisfying but curiously unpassionate way. Indeed, satisfactory but passionless consumption is the mode of the Houellebecquian non-hero (all cum but no jouissance, he’s no antihero). Erotic love is not of a different order, simply the highest satisfaction on the consumption pyramid—and thus to be pursued most relentlessly, in a variety of circumstances and positions, sometimes involving others: “The feeling mounted with sudden jolts like bolts of lightning, then exploded just before I ejaculated into Nicole’s mouth. . . . Valerie had slipped her arm around my neck, looking at me tenderly, mysteriously.” Hot.
Our attitude toward this is compromised not only by Michel’s contented distance from his own experiences, but by comical gestures. Much of the early passage to Thailand is occupied with capsule reviews of lite novels Michel peruses. He even manages to jerk off to The Firm, after quoting Grisham at length: “I ejaculated between two pages with a groan of satisfaction. They were going to stick together; didn’t matter, it wasn’t the kind of book you read twice.” This is apparently fair use, in France.
Such wit serves as an aggressively passive demand that we wonder to what sort of book we ourselves are jerking off. Does it imagine itself more literary than Grisham? And if not, does it feel bad about this, or ironic, or just sort of fine about providing some inert satisfaction to the next alienated consumer?
In the midst of such placid meta-concerns, Platform stages a plot. As in Particles, events are driven by the confluence of the characters’ jobs and desires. Michel’s a low-level arts administrator, which provides for some low-watt sardony about both art and bureaucratic sinecures, although Michel’s judgments are indifferently generous: “I sensed in him a certain authenticity, but maybe it was simply the authenticity of failure.” Valerie has a real job: She’s in fact in the sojourn biz, designing package tours. In the book’s late turning point (a term which may exaggerate the place of the narrative), the lovers render unto séjours what is Caesar’s; they propose to corporatize sexual tourism. A bit to everyone’s surprise, the “Aphrodite” tours, which turn Valerie’s hotelier bosses into international pimps, are an immediate smash—but for a few zealot locals, who take exception to the idea.
What’s at stake is the desacralizing of sex, its final leap into the realm of pure commodity, the role of implacable consumption in cultural imperialism, and whether it’s the characters who are bored by these worthy concerns, or the novel, or just us. Houellebecq’s gift is his capacity to suck the use value out of such ideas, and return them to the public sphere as pure appearance—as part of the mechanism of passionless satisfaction. Well, someone has to make porn perusable on the subway, before one ditches it unfulfilled on the platform; it’s not the kind of book you read once.