Every Young Boy’s Dream
- Platform by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Frank Wynne
Heinemann, 362 pp, £12.99, September 2002, ISBN 0 04 340098 1
This is the third of Michel Houellebecq’s novels, and in it, as in the previous two, his hero yearns, mostly in vain, for men and women who are strangers to each other to reach out spontaneously and touch each other: for men to be able to dispense with verbal courtship, for women to put aside cultural restraint, discrimination and any desire to be seduced; and for the sexes to spend as much time as they can cope with in mutually rewarding fornication. If it sounds like pornography, it often reads like it, but there is more to Platform than porn. Amid the cynicism, self-loathing and hermetic fucking, love emerges. It is hard to believe this could seem fresh: the story of a couple who start out interested in sex and end up loving each other is a familiar one in art and, indeed, life. Yet it does seem fresh. Perhaps this is because the central couple, Michel (yes, Houellebecq’s own first name) and Valérie, go beyond the traditional reluctance to acknowledge that they have fallen in love. They do not treat love, as modern convention would have it, as a stage above and beyond sex, but rather as a delicious, harm-free and unexpected drug doled out to them to enhance their sex life. At one point, when Michel and Valérie are talking to Valérie’s business partner, the young, wealthy, attractive and emotionally wrecked Jean-Yves, Michel reflects: ‘He knew that we would go home later and fuck, and we could fuck with love.’
Recounting his pathetic early sex life, Michel explains that he used Viagra to balance out the effect of alcohol. With Valérie, it is her exhaustion after long days at the office, rather than booze, which needs to be overcome. There’s always love: ‘She would come back from work so exhausted that she hadn’t the energy to make love, barely enough energy to suck me off; she would be half asleep with my penis still in her mouth. When I penetrated her, it was usually in the morning when we woke. Her orgasms were more muted, more restrained, as though muffled by a curtain of fatigue; I think I loved her more and more.’
Did I mention that Platform is about sex? There has been so much media coverage of what Houellebecq has said about Islam in interviews, and so much selective quotation from the book highlighting its racial and religious content, that people who haven’t read it might imagine it to be a work of political polemic. There is much polemic here, and much about race and religion, but sex is the theme which, as far as any in this rambling work, pulls the strings together. This is a book which subordinates the clash of civilisations (uncivilisations, in Platform’s view) to sexual longing. Towards the end a Jordanian banker – one of the friendly, forthright and eloquent Arab mouthpieces who pop up to deliver Houellebecq’s critiques of Islam – dispels an ephemeral hatred Michel acquires for Islam with the soothing theory that it cannot last.
The problem with Muslims, he told me, was that the paradise promised by the prophet already existed here on earth: there were places on earth where young, available, lascivious girls danced for the pleasure of men, where one could become drunk on nectar and listen to celestial music; there were about twenty of them within five hundred metres of our hotel . . . To gain admission, there was absolutely no need to fulfil the seven duties of a Muslim, nor to engage in holy war; all you had to do was pay a couple of dollars.