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.
Michel is a civil servant in his forties. He lives in Paris, where he works at the Ministry of Culture, doling out grants for art exhibitions. He’s so apathetic, and his life is so loveless and colourless, that only brands and TV shows get him through the day. That and the prospect of a bought orgasm – a daily after-work wank at a peepshow, and, later, sex tourism. When his father dies, he inherits a hefty sum, and takes off on an organised trip to Thailand. There he meets Valérie, a Parisienne some fifteen years younger than him. Some of their fellow tourists are scandalised when Michel takes time out from the tour to have sex with prostitutes, but Valérie is intrigued. When she asks him, ‘What have Thai girls got that Western women don’t?’ Michel is so dismayed that he hides from her for the rest of the trip. On their return to Paris, they meet up and become lovers: the answer to Valérie’s question is ‘Nothing’ – but only in her case. She is, Michel later decides, ‘a radiant exception’.
Valérie turns out to be an executive in a tour company. She and Jean-Yves are approached by a French leisure conglomerate, Aurore, to run a chain of ailing resorts in exotic locations around the world. They can’t work out how to make them successful; then Michel suggests that they welcome the prostitutes inside and explicitly turn the destinations into sex resorts. Until one of the resorts is attacked by terrorists – the bombing in Bali makes Houellebecq appear disturbingly prescient – the project had seemed set to become a roaring success. ‘You have several hundred million Westerners who have everything they could want but no longer manage to obtain sexual satisfaction,’ Michel explains as he makes his pitch. ‘On the other hand, you have several billion people . . . who have nothing left to sell except their bodies and their unspoiled sexuality . . . it’s an ideal trading opportunity.’
The obvious way to read this passage is as advocacy of ruthless sexual imperialism, which is what the sex bargain between the rich world and the poor world often is. But that doesn’t take into account the extent to which Platform prioritises sex. In the book, Westerners really are the unfortunate ones, sad, lost, soulless and bitter, and what they are seeking in poor countries is more than a cheap lay with a pretty young person. They seek the illusion of being desired, too, the illusion that someone they have only just met really wants to touch them: something that, in Houellebecq’s view, the West no longer offers, for love or money. Apart from radiant exceptions like Valérie. ‘Offering your body as an object of pleasure, giving pleasure unselfishly: that’s what Westerners don’t know how to do any more,’ Michel tells her when, with a glad heart, she obeys his request to fellate him, even though she didn’t particularly want to. ‘They’ve completely lost the sense of giving. Try as they might, they no longer feel sex as something natural.’
Sex in the West – between consenting French persons, at least – is presented as a bleak, cerebral act, where fetishists and modern artists share a view of the human body as a failed vessel, requiring deconstruction. In his work Michel helps fund a video by an artist about what happens to the corpses of people who have donated their bodies to science. At the premiere, medical students mingle with the audience and wave genuine body parts at the enthusiastic crowd. Later, a trip that Michel, Valérie and the artist make to an S&M club is described in unpleasant detail; Jean-Yves’s wife turns out to be leading a secret life as a prominent sadist. The miserable 35-year-old Jean-Yves achieves happiness only during an affair with his 15-year-old babysitter, Eucharistie, a girl from Benin, whose amused, inquisitive generosity and youth give her a power over him that he cannot have over her.
Houellebecq’s earnest wish to idealise sex as a balm for Western ills leads him to make some dodgy narrative moves. At the beginning of the book it is clear that Westerners can fulfil their desire to be instantly desired, but only if they pay for it. As Michel’s relationship with Valérie develops, and he mourns the sense of the naturalness of sex that’s been lost in the West, the fact that the deal between sex tourists and poor world prostitutes is a financial one starts to get blurred. The novel ignores the three nastiest aspects of prostitution in the Third World: child prostitution, the relationship between prostitutes and pimps, and client brutality. Houellebecq seems to move from saying that Westerners should learn from Asian prostitutes to suggesting that Asian prostitutes are as free as Westerners. In the course of the book Michel is transformed from a ‘lonely, pot-bellied European’ to a man so at ease with his sexuality that it never occurs to him that the women he has intercourse with, with barely a moment of foreplay, might be faking it. Towards the end of the book, the sex scenes, all described at length, become more absurd. Sex on a train between Michel and Valérie leads to a chance encounter with a bisexual female stranger in a nearby compartment and a threesome in a steambath. It’s dreamily soft-focus on the page, as if Houellebecq has lost belief in the entire project and is writing a little light porn to amuse himself. It just so happens that, besides being young, rich and sexually ravenous, and having ‘superb breasts, round and high, so swollen and firm that they looked artificial’, Valérie swings both ways. Every young boy’s dream.
It may be the misjudged silliness of these later sex scenes that makes the racial discourse of Platform stand out. Certainly, through various characters, Houellebecq has a go at diverse national and religious targets. Americans appear to be beneath or beyond direct criticism, although a hilarious account of Michel reading John Grisham’s The Firm, during which, unexpectedly aroused by its contents, he ejaculates between the pages, could be construed by patriots as a savage attack on everything that is fine and decent about the US. The British are represented by Frederick Forsyth, a ‘halfwit’. The narrative is bookended by Muslim aggression, with the terrorist attack at the end and the murder of Michel’s father by a Muslim at the beginning, and a detailed denunciation of Islam in between. The Japanese are characterised as ‘innately vicious’. The Chinese have filthy manners. Discussing sex tourism in Africa, Jean-Yves says: ‘In general, you never have any problems with Africans. They’ll fuck for free, even the fat ones.’ The French? ‘The French have a penchant for talking about sex at every possible opportunity without ever doing anything.’ Given all this, it is striking to note the way Houellebecq tries to protect himself against accusations of racism by seasoning his book with sympathetic Arab, Asian and black characters. They are two-dimensional, which makes the artifice all the more noticeable – it’s a kind of some-of-my-nicest-characters-are-black deal – and the main reason we are never going to see Jean-Marie Le Pen waving Platform at rallies is not so much this balancing act as Houellebecq’s merciless portrayal of Europe. There is no hint of nobility or greatness in Michel’s depiction of our pancontinental uselessness:
To the end, I will remain a child of Europe, of worry and of shame; I have no message of hope to deliver. For the West, I do not feel hatred; at most I feel a great contempt. 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.
It is easy to trash a writer, even without meaning to. You don’t need to say that he is bad. You simply write about him in such a way that his books sound as good as everybody else’s. Houellebecq’s books are not as good as everybody else’s. When they are good, they are as good as nobody else’s. To those who prefer to watch good athletes trying and failing to jump over a bar set too high, rather than watching mediocre athletes hop over an easy height, I commend Platform. It has enough of the curt wit and cruel, aphoristic truth seen in his previous books, translated in the UK as Whatever (1999) and Atomised (2000), to make it worth reading to the end. ‘I sensed in him a certain authenticity, but maybe it was simply the authenticity of failure,’ he writes of the body-parts artist. Elsewhere: ‘Anything can happen in life, especially nothing’; ‘I myself was perfectly adapted to the information age, that is to say good for nothing’; ‘In the end, what all lovers of journeys of discovery seek is confirmation of what they’ve already read in their guidebooks.’
One of Platform’s weaknesses is that Houellebecq tries to put into a single character, Michel, traits that in the brilliant Atomised were divided between two brothers, Bruno and (again) Michel. Bruno is a clown, an absurd, pathetic, naive figure, at the mercy of life’s trivialities and condemned to break down; Michel, while just as unhappy, is in control, an intellectual, capable of observing the world, drawing conclusions and redirecting his course. It worked. The Michel of Platform makes less sense. The inarticulate character who loves watching Questions pour un champion and Xena: Warrior Princess lives off Mousline instant mash with cheese and loves the sound Windows makes when it starts up seems to be a different man from the later Michel, the wry, wordly-wise sexual athlete comfortable in elite restaurants and offering ideas for a global business strategy. People change, but this transformation is not convincing. The treatment of sex doesn’t compare well, either. In Whatever (the French title was Extension du domaine de la lutte: on this basis, A la recherche du temps perdu could be translated as ‘Whenever’), men’s need to benefit from the redemptive power of sexual love was only implied. In Atomised, it was explicit, but Bruno and Michel had to struggle through the tragi-comic difficulties of finding that sexual love in late 20th-century France; in the end, only by creating a new race of immortal, supersexual beings – Michel is a geneticist – can humanity’s insatiable desires be satisfied. The Michel of Platform tries to create a similar paradise, with the means at hand. Platform’s paradise should be the more believable, but it isn’t. The sex is just too glorious, too without losers, too reliably zipless. It is intriguing that one of the other novels Houellebecq refers to in Platform, with a certain wariness, is Alex Garland’s The Beach, which became a cult with young Western backpackers heading out for Asia in the 1990s. Well might Houellebecq be wary. In Garland’s book, the popular and initially well-adjusted hero, surrounded as he is by flesh as young and smooth as his own, doesn’t have sex with anyone. To which Houellebecq might answer that his point about Westerners is proved – except that the non-sex of The Beach works, and the sex of Platform, most of the time, doesn’t.
Platform is a lumpy book. The sudden shifts of perspective aren’t a problem – the narrative is mainly from Michel’s point of view, but occasionally we switch to Valérie’s past, or Jean-Yves’s grim present – and Houellebecq has a pleasing way of subverting a paragraph by sticking an erotic non sequitur in at the end of a massive, trundling passage about politics and history. What are awkward are the shards of unrealised ideas that lie about the story. There are regular references, for example, to horrific crimes being committed on the streets of Paris, but they seem to have no connection to anything else in the novel.
Nor is it clear why Houellebecq has included so much stilted dialogue and involved explanation about money and business. The account of the history and workings of the Aurore Group – such a thinly disguised version of the Accor Group that it is hard to see why Houellebecq bothered changing the name – runs to pages. Michel and Valérie have exchanges like this: ‘I don’t know why, but I’m glad you’re rich. It’s not important, really, but it makes me happy.’ ‘It’s true I’m successful, I have a good salary; but I pay 40 per cent tax’ . . . It would be wonderful if European writers restored money to the place in literature that culture gives it in life; 19th-century French novelists dwelled on it in great detail, US novelists like Tom Wolfe still do. But Houellebecq doesn’t follow through, and we never understand why these bursts of financial detail come and go. To provoke the Left? To emphasise the shallowness of Western society? As part of some grand pastiche of airport fiction to which the porn passages also belong? Whatever the plan was, it hasn’t been realised.
It is a feature of Planet Houellebecq that no reasonably honest man can return from it and describe his experiences there without revealing something of himself. While reading Platform, I often wondered: what would a woman think of this? I make no claim to wide sexual experience, but I don’t think it was innocence that made me want to carry out a straw poll of women friends on the plausibility of this passage about Jean-Yves and Eucharistie: ‘The first time, he held back, was hesitant about coming in her mouth; but he quickly realised that she enjoyed it, or rather that it amused her.’ Fortunately, I thought better of asking anyone; but there is something not fully worked through about much of the sexual writing here. Against other European male writers who have been exploring the boundaries of sex writing – Alan Warner, say – Houellebecq’s sex writings in Platform seem like placeholders for something he never quite found time or strength to face up to. In Whatever, Houellebecq talks about breaking up with his last girlfriend, and goes on, as if the thought just occurred to him: ‘It may be, dear reader and friend, that you are a woman yourself. Don’t be alarmed, these things happen. Anyway, it changes nothing of what I have to say to you. I take the rough with the smooth.’ Valérie is a large presence in Platform, but beyond the simple outlines of her as Michel’s guardian sex angel and as a sharp businesswoman, she is hard to make out as a character, as if she is based on someone Houellebecq knows so well that he forgot readers needed to be introduced. It may be that Houellebecq knows Valérie, but we do not, and his knowledge changes nothing of what he has to say to us. His Platform wobbles.