Sex With The Poor For Profit

  • Share
  • Read Later
Nobody does abjection like Michel Houellebecq. He's French, after all, so he has the exemplary squalor of Sartre, Celine and Genet to live up to. It was the state-of-the-art estrangement, plus the sex, that made his second novel, The Elementary Particles, a huge best seller in Europe and made Houellebecq (pronounced Well-beck) a heavily contested literary star. Last year he was acquitted by a French court of inciting racial hatred after he called Islam "the most stupid religion." (Does it help to know that his mother left him in childhood for an Arab and converted to Islam?) So is he a new paradigm of loutish lucidity, a potty-mouthed Camus? Or just a racist drunk? Platform (Knopf; 259 pages), his third novel, is a heartfelt defense of sexual tourism by Westerners among the nubile, pliant and — oh, yes — penniless peoples of the Third World. The book is classic, gamy Houellebecq: witty, indigestible, willfully repellent and fiercely enjoyable.

Houellebecq is that eminent specimen of literary animal, the deadpan desperado. (Think William Burroughs, but more readable.) The narrator of Platform, also named Michel, works for the French Ministry of Culture. A nobody-in-particular who has made his peace with that, Michel has a gift for loathing so nasty-funny he could be British and a faith in the groin as the fountain of all contentments. Even masturbation he surrounds with a beatific glow. "I gently emptied my testicles."

After his father is murdered, Michel takes a tour-group vacation to Thailand. The dreadful fellow travelers, the machine-tooled John Grisham novel on the predictable beach — Houellebecq expertly takes the measure of modern enjoyments. But Michel also meets Valerie, then moves in with her in Paris. When she accepts an executive job with a hotel chain, he persuades her to convert some of its Third World hotels to sex resorts.

For all its very explicit coupling, nothing in Platform is written with a smirk. Michel believes that only the body is to be trusted, its pleasures the only reliable refuge. Capitalism he's resigned to. Religion he thinks of as a fool's game that leads to murderous fundamentalisms. The book ends with a terrorist attack at a Thai resort and some especially nasty passages about Muslims — the grieving Michel describes his pleasure at any news of pregnant Palestinian women being killed.

Houellebecq has a gift for sleepy invective; he has contempt for both freedom and authority. But he's like a bad date — brimming with rank charm but few useful judgments. The great nihilist doesn't even know what a closet Victorian he is. Michel sentimentalizes commercial sex, imagining a Western encounter with the Third World that will be calculating and unglamorous but, all in all, gentle. You might say "gently empty." The empty part is a good bet. Somebody remind the author that the gentleness is not to be counted on.