“Sex as a global commodity”
Platform, by Michel Houellebecq. Heinemann.
Irish Times, September 21, 2002
The entire world threw a party the night of December 31, 1999. It is characteristic of Michel Houellebecq that the hero of his latest novel Michel yet again, toujours Michel – should blithely await the new millennium, at a beach hotel in Thailand, bombed out of his head, exactly one year later. Michel, it will be noted, has science on his side, the agreement of any number of calendarists, pedants, that the millennium correctly began the first day of 2001. But the emotional truth (our Michel has a fondness for italics, the emphatic shortcut) the emotional truth remains – he missed the party.
And Michel, a man who has never felt “any solidarity with other human beings”, would prefer things that way. He has come to Thailand on a whim after his father’s death – or murder, if you like, though it is all very much the same to Michel. We meet him aged forty, “a harmless human being and moderately amusing” with a human love for womankind – or to put it Michel’s way, an “enthusiasm for pussy”. A woman’s body will plunge him “into a state of agitation I can’t control.” Alas, all too literally, for in the brothels and massage parlours relief comes all too soon and he must return to the “endless, imbecile repetition of sameness” that is his daily round. Though the girls are always thankful, and they bow him away most graciously.
This daily round is punctuated by sociological banalities. “After Christmas, there’s always a slight fall-off in domestic food consumption” ... “According to the Marshall model, the buyer is a rational individual seeking to maximise his satisfaction” ... “Human groups of more than three people have a tendency, apparently, to split into two hostile sub-groups” ... At one point we are given a footnote referencing Sightseeing Tours: A Sociological Approach – and for one glorious de-Selby moment we stretch forth our legs the more willingly to have them pulled. But there is to be no leg-pulling with Michel. Sternly we are advised that “the establishment of micro-groups can only be detected after the first excursion.” Well, fancy.
Game-show psychology wears thin after a time: luckily there are details aplenty to flesh the narrative. The single supplement for this Thailand trip was “1,175FF”. Michel carries in his luggage a “JVC HRD-9600 MS video camera”. The “powerful vehicle” that transports him is a “64-seat Mercedes M-800”. When in exasperation he flings a trashy novel across his hotel bedroom, we are not the least surprised to discover it is a “Sony” television he misses “by a whisker”. His cataloguing of the global merchandise available at an airport (“scarves by Hermès, perfumes by Yves Saint-Laurent, bags by Vuitton”) leads him to “an inkling that, more and more, the whole world would come to resemble an airport.” This is so banal a conclusion that only to have an inkling of it is to be either obtuse or wilfully blinkered.
So what is the problem with Michel? The problem, apparently, is not that he’s a bore, that he’s shiftless, self-centred, grossly opinionated (the Chinese – “literally like pigs”; Muslims – a “clot” in the European blood system; his fellow tourists – “sluts”, “proles”). No, the fault lies with Western women. They’ve given up on pleasuring their men, and instead want jobs, lives, pleasures of their own. Western man’s only recourse is to sex tourism in the Far East, where the girls – bless them – have retained an expertise, a delight even, in their predestined role. “They were a godsend, these little Thai whores, I thought; a gift from heaven, nothing less.”
But alas, Thailand provides only transient escape, and poor Michel must trundle home to France where it rains. Enter now Valérie. This girl has it all. She’s wealthy, she has a great job in tourism, she’s even great at her job. And she, alone of Western women, has preserved a purity of pleasure. “She was one of those creatures who are capable of devoting their lives to someone else’s happiness, of making that alone their goal.” Er, that, and setting up a global mid-market sex tourism monopoly.
Anyway, with Valérie Michel is given “a second chance”. In her – well, not arms so much as loins – he finds happiness. And in the pages that follow we trace this happiness in its every conceivable position, location, combination, and whatever you’re having yourself. So profound is his joy that Michel is driven to a rare theological speculation. “What can one compare with God?” he wonders. Answer there comes, “In the first place, obviously, a woman’s pussy”.
Despite protestations to the contrary, Michel is at heart a humanitarian. He can’t very well share his god’s gift with every Western man, but he can do the next best thing. He can transport them all to Thailand where every woman is “gentle” and “expert”. So the second half of the novel follows the setting up of this “friendly tourism” business. Surprisingly, fantastically even, it becomes a page-turner. Our Michel, give him his due, has learnt from those airport novels he trashed in the first half, and now has our attention gripped. Was ever a hotel chain as compelling as Aurore? Was ever resort management so rivetting?
But it is too silly to go on; and the arguments put forward in favour of sex tourism are too silly to need countering. Indeed, the entire novel can only be read as a reductio ad absurdum. And yet, we read of court cases in France, of Houellebecq living in fear for his life. One is tempted, in the voice of Michel, to remark the stupidity of dying for one’s weakest work. But the greater absurdity is that this book should be taken seriously at all; and in a way one forgives the publishers, Heinemann, for bringing out such a cheap shoddy error-ridden edition.
And yet ... Houellebecq can be an engaging writer. There is a refreshing honesty in these pages. But too often the retreat from hypocrisy leads to aimless brutality – in words, thoughts, deeds. There are moments of beautiful lyricism, but Houellebecq distrusts emotion and these moments serve, like church candles, only to darken the gloom. The book ends with a stinging disavowal of Western civilization: “We have created a system in which it has simply become impossible to live; and what’s more we continue to export it.” Cannot he see that the solution he proposes merely ensures a further export – this time of our lust? But of course, for Houellebecq there is no lust, only the “right to pleasure”. But the problem with such spurious rights is the more I exercise mine, by that degree are another’s abused. That is the heart of darkness: it is the philosophical paradox this book refuses to address.