by Jay A Gertzman
It takes guts for a novelist to invite real hate by using the protagonists and settings he does. Michel Houellebecq has been called a misogynist, misanthropist, racist, pornographer, Luddite, and nihilist (see the reviews in the “what’s-fit-to-print” paper). These heavy judgments were responses to his trilogy starting with Platform(2001). It continued with The Elementary Particles (1998) and concluded with The Possibility of an Island(2005). Not many novelists have so carefully teased out a readership’s loathing.
The title Platform is relevant to 1: strategies for launching an initiative—in the novel, a plan for sex tourism to Thailand 2. A revolutionary post-colonial action aimed at European tourists who want to have sex with Asian girls in an exotic setting. To provide the proper come-on (for 1 and [unintentionally] ) 2, the tourist industry arranges with the Thai government to separate tourists from the general population so they can feel safe and comfortable. It’s a kind of Disney-fication, gentrification, or gated community strategy, deeply infuriating to indigenous peoples, the kind that has brought terrorism in response to neo-liberalism and free trade (of Iraq’s oil) by western oil corporations.
The first-person narrator “Michel,” is blissfully involved with Valerie, an executive at French tourist enterprise. Yet he is a detached, depressed (b/c perceptive) observer of a society where happiness is measured by the ability to escape the daily grind through isolating oneself in a commercially-created luxury of exotic scenery, warm climates, and sex.
This novel begins with a sentence that reminds of The Stranger: “father died last year.” While Michel is happy beyond his dreams with Valerie, it is too late for the hope for the future that Lady Chatterley and Mellors have, or for even for the calm acceptance that Meursault enjoyed from his prison cell. The horrific climax to the novel is followed by the narrator’s statement, “I’ll be forgotten quickly.” Meanwhile, Michel speaks eloquently about a culture that can find no meaning or authenticity—love is sex tourism, patriotism is predicated on depredation on other countries, and politicians are comedians prating clichés empty of content (as in “American [or French or UK] exceptionalism,” “free trade,” or “post-colonial financial synergy.”
The climax of this novel comes when Valerie and Michel are victims of a terrorist attack targeting Europeans, due to their exploitation of Thai girls in sex clubs and exclusion of Muslims from tourist areas. Valerie is killed. Houellebecq’s dispassionate, non-judgmental language is one indication of his refusal to describe the event as anything but inevitable. It is an anarchist response—on the part of the character, naturally. Whether it is the author’s is irrelevant to the tory, but if Houellebecq has disappeared (and his Michel is hypercritical regarding his culture), that somehow makes the tenor of the story more dire. Says Michel, “I feel a great contempt [for Europe]. I know only that every single one of us reeks of selfishness, masochism, and death. We have created a system in which it has simply become impossible to live, and what’s more, we continue to export it.”
Before her death, Valerie called herself a “predator.” Her business has provided a vacation as a result of which the individual’s lust preys upon other people’s bodies, aiding in in the degeneration of the vacationer’s (possibly not the victim’s) body and soul, and eventually his/her own prerogative to exist in any human group. The transgression has been too deep. That is not what Houellebecq says. It is where he pushed me, and I realize it is hardly the whole story. Valerie, if not Michel, is a person aware enough of Michel’s ennui to extricate him from it, because she loves him. Of all the characters in the novel, she least deserves to be a victim of those conditioned to hate predatory capitalism. That’s how effective an anarchist writer Houellebecq is. He’s also humane, if you want to commit yourself to finding humanity among all the slaves.
This work previews the other two novels, which are just as ambiguous regarding decadence, dystopia, and the involvement of the narrator in what Nietzsche termed “slave mortality”—suspicion of others, spite and contempt, abject fear of reigning power, and the absolute need for escape, in our own time, from what is being done to you into voyeuristic orgasm and manufactured, family-friendly adventures (“priceless,” as the MasterCard folks tout it). The author’s point of view—the distance between his and his protagonists beliefs—continues to be a challenge.
The Elementary Particles is about the degeneration of 20th century humanity. The evidence is an all-world level of self-importance, exemplified not by “endless war” or the need to “remove a dictator” (and control his country’s oil) , but (the narrator expounds) by New Age clichés about allowing one’s sexual impulses full indulgence in Club Med or sex resorts where S/M, group sex, and orgies complement amateur music, painting, and “open” discussions about “hang-ups” and infantile repressions. It’s the sixties’ New Freedom, as imported from the US by its “prurient-minded” mass entertainment industry, that made this possible. The sickness is terminal, so much so that no future reproduction of the species as we know it is worthwhile. At the end of the novel, a Final Solution presents itself (see pp.246-63). The shadowy narrator, a shadow (but hardly a replica) of the author, declares his book to be “a last tribute to [now almost extinct] humanity.”
Advocates of feminism, mutually-consensual sexual experimentation, and equality for racial minorities are accused of single-minded advocacy of their causes. I wonder if Houellebecq would have found an American publisher if he had not established his reputation in Europe. Readers would resent his perspective, and Oprah would have not responded favorably. It’s bad enough for a “decent” reader to be denigrated if his/her deeply held beliefs are equated with escape from individual awareness and free will. Moreover, the “prophet” of the new order is an emotionally crippled, impotent biologist, Michel Djerzinski. He is responsible for the failure to love Annabel, a beautiful, trusting woman devoted to him since they were teenagers. He loves his granny instead, and the remote Atlantic coast of Ireland, as does Houellebecq. This authorial doppelganger (compare and contrast) has a chief disciple and mass popularizer, named Hubczejak (Houllebecq ?). The writer dares you to equate him with his characters, an elemental mistake indignant reviewers make.
He asked for it, but does Houellebecq deserve the outlaw status to which he is at least indifferent ? Even less so, I think, than other anarchist and “hard-core porno” writers (Burroughs, Manchette, Bataille, de Sade, Artaud). Their works also show a dispassionate contempt for “ordinary,” “decent” feelings in support of patriotism, family, democracy, and tolerance. Houllebecq is more vulnerable, for not only is his “prophet”a Willy Wet-Leg, but this Michel’s spiritual murder of Annabel is made worse by his inability to recognize her as immune to the end-time degeneracy of “I guarantee it” internet dating services, megachurches, gated communities, and “liberated” sex clubs. And his half-brother Bruno is an even damper Wet-Leg. A compulsive masturbator, he is obsessed with cybersex, porno, group sex and orgies, although he is a teacher (who has molested a student). He actually finds a woman brave and honest enough to love him. Faced with having to care for her in her final illness, he runs away to a mental institution, leaving Christienne (another exception to the schmucky prophet Michel’s judgment on the damned human race) to die alone while he reads about himself in Kafka’s stories and waits for Godot, cock in hand.
The elegiac Possibility of an Island takes The Elementary Particles several steps further in time, into the post-history of humanity, 24 generations removed from a nuclear holocaust of some sort, which installed a new, stronger, and certainly more composed kind of two-footed creature without feathers standing about 6 feet high. Daniel 24 looks just like Daniel 1, but the latter, a celebrity with a very ironic view of his fame as political-social commentator, was just 21st century human.
Daniel 1’s relationship with Isabelle lets us in on why a magazine for pre-teens called “Lolita” was so successful: extreme youth had been equated through entertainment (“pleasure”) with sex; that was so enticing that mature women are irresistibly attracted to the fashions that people equate with peace and happiness. I realize that is very sarcastic but that is how Houellebecq teaches. Daniel 1 loves Isabelle 1, but love cannot be extended beyond the point at which human pleasure, at its apex in youth, peaks. “Morality has been put to death,” and freedom means sensuality, the commodification of which has morphed into satiation with deified products. As we all know here in the most powerful, self-indulgent, youth-obsessed nation, we hold onto what we have (Mad Ave’s “you deserve it”) by “stabilizing” the rest of the world for ourselves. In The Possibility, this state of degeneration ends with holocaust, and a new religion without passion, the godhead being “The Supreme Sister.”
Later in the book, Daniel 24, aggrieved by the inability to find Marie 22, a poet, journeys to the badlands where the remnants of humanity still live. There is at last, and in contradiction to what The Supreme Sister teaches, a discovery of love and suffering. But not between Daniel 24 and Marie 22. He survives, sort of. There is a lot of Gulliver’s Travels in this section. I can’t say more without spoiling the impact for you of this very philosophical, anarchist, but not quite nihilist work.
The three novels comprise a complex anarchist work for readers willing to see beyond their first responses. Such readers would have to look clearly at the protagonists (sometimes named Michel) and their varying abilities to access their own real needs. Readers would have also to look at at their own world, at themselves in the mirror it provides, and at the intentions, if they dare, of the author. He is such a good writer, and so indifferent to the needs of readers to find some sort of self-validation, that his books might themselves be examples of the radical cultural mutations he predicts are inevitable.