MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ TRANS. FRANK WYNNE HEINEMANN
"OURS IS essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically." Thus begins a scandalous novel of illicit sexual adventures, of diatribes against spiritual decadence, and of fire- raising political asides. Michel Houellebecq loathes many things, among them the fantasy construction French pundits call "Anglo- Saxon" culture. So it seems unlikely that anyone has ever pointed out to the chief merde-stirrer of French fiction today how uncannily he echoes the bitter, dying D H Lawrence who wrote Lady Chatterley's Lover.
In Platform, his third novel, the revitalising role of gamekeeper Mellors is split between virtuoso Thai bar-girls ("a gift from heaven") and the doormat-like high-flier in the travel trade who wakes our lacklustre hero, her lover, with fresh coffee and fellatio. Yet, behind the brouhaha that Houellebecq provokes, one question still nags. Is the whore-loving, Muslim- baiting 44-year- old novelist who has stamped his name on a Euro-brand of millennial lassitude really "hunting big game" - as Julian Barnes wrote about his last novel, Atomised? Or is he cynically potting the feeble rabbits of post-Sixties liberal piety to thrill the kind of jaded reader who laps up anything that smacks of "political incorrectness"?
His fans routinely hail Houellebecq as a fearless, and fearsome, Sade or Celine for the age of dial-up porn, designer fetishism and long-haul package tours. For me, he can sometimes look more like the Ozzy Osbourne of modern French letters.
Which is not to say that Platform will not upset and offend. Yes, its plot portrays organised sex tourism to Third World countries as an "ideal trading opportunity": a valid coming-together of rich but enervated Westerners with poor but sappy locals, "who have nothing left to sell except their bodies". Yes, its many graphic sex scenes exhibit all the lyrical grace of a flatpack assembly booklet. Yes, the heroine Valerie - although she can earn pounds 100,000 pa as a tour planner - improbably loves nothing better than to give pleasure to the mousy civil servant, Michel, who tells this tale. And, yes, Platform does launch a few tirades - unconvincingly, in the mouths of two pasteboard Arab characters - against the monotheistic rigour of Islam (that "inhuman murderous absurdity").
One of the dumb "Anglo-Saxons" Michel detests is Frederick Forsyth, whom he labels - on the basis of his Thatcherite thrillers - as a "dickhead". The funny thing is that Houellebecq in his shocking- rant mode sounds weirdly like the average op-ed piece by ... you know who. One day, they should get together for a cocktail.
There the prosecution rests. The defence, I believe, can still muster a more compelling case. With Houellebecq, Lawrence's "tragic age" of desiccated humanity moves into a new, posthuman, dimension. In Atomised, the geneticist brother who survives (while his sex-mad sibling sinks into madness) dreams of replacing humanity with a superior race of cyber-beings, beyond desire and beyond decay. Platform opts for droll and deadpan satire (on tourism, consumerism, the jargon of marketing) rather than mystical SF. Yet it also depicts the alienated trippers who seek paid-for oblivion in Thai or Cuban arms as people sick of life - drones and parasites for whom "the idea of the uniqueness of the individual is nothing more than a pompous absurdity". …