I was working on a revision of a story, and a character ended up needing to recommend a French author. Searching my memory, I came up with only a few names, including Camus and Sartre, but as I wanted something more recent, I tried to think of another French writer; Bernard Werber is popular in Korea, and so came to mind, but it was the wrong author to think of, so finally, perhaps because I’d recently mentioned him (here), Michel Houellebecq came to mind.
I recalled many of the things I’d read about him: the accusations of his racism, of sexism, of misanthropy. The one person who had actually recommended him to me was someone of the kind whose recommendation could be, for most who know him, understood quite straightforwardly as a damning indictment of the author. Yet I had run across a used copy of Houellebecq’s Platform in Japan recently, and bought it.
I dug in.
There are many bad things I could say about the book, though browsing around the net for reviews published at the time, I find most of them to have been said. I could wax theoretical, rehearsing a discussion of Medieval typological literary reading and how this book, despite having been written (just) before the climactic events of September and October 2001 (9-11 and the Bali night club bombing, the latter event quite eerily presaged by events in the novel), cannot now be read outside of the context of the so-called “War on Terror” and all the stupidity and horror (on both sides) tied to it. I could talk about the quality of the writing, for the book both repulsed me but also drew me along. I could even mention the silly lawsuit that was brought against him, though Salman Rushdie (other than his praises of the novel) was pretty much bang-on with his assessment of the case.
But finally, what I want to talk about is the claims that Houellebecq’s narrator make about the background of his ennui — because I suspect they connect to the very reasons why I was unsatisfied with the book, and puzzled by how Houellebecq managed to ride the text to fame.
Platform begins — quite absolutely begins, indeed, in the first sentence of the novel — with an invocation of Camus’ L’Éntranger, and at every step of the way the narrator puts on airs of a critical and literary consciousness — critiquing the writings of John Grisham, Frederick Forsyth, Agatha Christie, and Alex Garland — while insisting he cares about nothing.
What Houellebecq’s narrator (and I cannot say it is quite Houellebecq, though he does drive home the sense at times) reminds me of most is that certain sort of fellow who is utterly dedicated to puncturing every ideal, every value or thought; the sort of person who is bored with things being meaningful and had therefore gone ahead and decided it is better to think that everything — at least, everything that he himself does not care about — is meaningless, pointless, boring.
I have never heard three lazier, more stupid words than “I don’t care,” said with a semblance of utter conviction. (These words cannot be said with actual conviction, I think; only a semblance, by someone who believes that simply not caring is a real position.) I think it is pathetic, and lazy, and so utterly predictable and fashionable not to care. Houllebecq seems to imply it is a mark of superiority; or so it seems — the book is something of a mess in terms of narrative voice, sliding between first person narration by “Michel” and some more omniscience narrator who seems, vaguely, to be a different Michel, perhaps the author but not certainly. Houellebecq’s narrator, at least, elevates not caring almost to an artform; almost, but not quite. Never quite. Rather, he seems to engage in not-caring as a habit carried out with some vehemence, some relish. The result is a novel without a hero, as others have noted; it is also, I should add, a novel lacking a clear villain.
And I mean that: there is no clear villain in this book. While many reviewers read the text as characterizing Muslims (or Islam) as the villain of the piece, the narrator’s hatred of the religion (propped up by the rants of two angry, apostate Muslims) seems rooted in the last few pages. (And there was that lawsuit, over some of the things he said in an interview about the book prior to its release.) But the narrator, a fellow named Michel, seems to have nothing nice to say about anyone — not himself, not his fellow travelers, nobody save the woman he falls in love with; one imagines that, had disease taken his lover instead, he would have railed against the futility of modern medicine, and stopped using condoms in the hope of catching HIV from one of the Thai hookers he subsequently visits. The anti-Muslim sentiment in this book seems only slightly more extreme than all the other misanthropies that (tiresomely) riddle it, and I think there are reasons which I’ve not seen mentioned in any review for why this might be the case.
But what I find more interesting to discuss is the question of why I, as a reader, reacted to the book in the way I did. And the answer, I think, is primarily found in the pseudo-philosophy inherent in the text. Not so much in the prattling about humans tending naturally toward miscegenation — all of that reads like an older bigot trying to rebrand his thinking as cool and hip and now — but the stuff he has to say about what may be the biggest villain of the piece, the Western world:
To the end, I will remain a child of Europe, of worry and 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.
This is, however, an about-face on his earlier thoughts about Europe’s historical project of system-exportation. For Houellebecq’s narrator has some romantic notions, only fifty pages before, about the colonial era. In the middle of a discussion of how money essentially formed a kind of short-circuit to the system of natural selection (though, of course, sexual reproduction), he comes out with this passage — one not discussed in most reviews of the book, but crucial, I think, to understanding why it ultimately seems to have fallen so flat for so many readers, but also explaining the book’s especial derision of Islam:
My European ancestors had worked hard for several centuries; they had sought to dominate, then to transform the world, and, to a certain extent they had succeeded. They had done so out of economic self-interest, out of a taste for work, but also because they believed in the superiority of their civilization: they had invented dreams, progress, utopia, the future. Their sense of a mission to civilize had disappeared in the course of the twentieth century. Europeans, at least some of them, continued to work, and sometimes to work hard, but they did so for money, or from a neurotic attachment to their work; the innocent sense of their natural right to dominate the world and direct the path of history had disappeared. As a consequence of their accumulated efforts, Europe remained a wealthy continent; those qualities of intelligence and determination manifested by my ancestors I had manifestly lost. As a wealthy European, I could obtain food and the services of women more cheaply in other countries; as a decadent European, conscious of my approaching death, and I saw no reason to deprive myself of such things. I was aware, however, that such a situation was barely tenable, that people like me were incapable of ensuring the survival of a society, perhaps more simply we were unworthy of life. Mutations would occur, were already occurring, but I found it difficult to feel truly concerned; my only genuine motivation was to get the hell out of this shithole as quickly as possible. November was cold, bleak; I hadn’t been reading Auguste Comte that much recently. My great diversion when Valérie was out consisted of watching the movement of the clouds through the picture window. Immense flocks of starlings formed over Gentilly in the late afternoon, describing inclined planes and spirals in the sky; I was quite tempted to ascribe meaning to them, to interpret them as the heralds of an apocalypse.
The apocalypse Houellebecq’s narrator foresees appears to be nothing less than the “suicide of the West” — a phrase I’ve seen before, but mainly by conservative religious-fundamentalist nutjobs who would be horrified to see such an author as the most well-known advocate of their ideas. For Houellebecq — unlike the nutjobs — this suicide is a expressed in terms of the modern ennui… not to be confused with modern angst: to care enough to experience angst, that is passé. Camus’ injunction that we imagine Sisyphus happy falls upon the ears of today as a perplexing one, for why would we imagine Sisyphus at all?
Our narrator, Michel, in truth has trouble imagining much, and focuses instead on the world of the senses, especially, indeed, copulative senses (about which he regales his audience in fine and constant, if annoyingly incontinent, detail). And that is the point, for the meditation above comes right on the heels of a justification of the sex trade by the narrator, who argues that money is the perfect form of renumeration for sex, mediating as it does between individuals regardless of their individual traits, and simultaneously standardizing people on a broad scale. For Houellebecq’s narrator, the standardization and expansion of the sex trade — as a form of international commerce, but also as a form of coping with the West’s unbearable ennui — appears to be inevitable, at least until Muslim terrorists share their opinion on the subject (in the form of a violent attack on one of the early brothel-club vacation sites, at which the narrator and his lover are holidaying).
Allow me to rephrase this thesis — the narrator’s, mind, and not mine:
Things were going well, until the West lost the will to dominate the Earth. Westerners continued to work, and sometimes to work hard, but the point seemed to disappear in a welter of capitalist exchange and consumerist idiocy.
At which point, one is driven to wonder — is the disgust that Houellebecq’s character expresses towards Islam perhaps studded with a kind of jealousy? After all, the very religious fanatics that he decries time and time again, have much more in common with those ancestors who “had sought to dominate, then to transform the world” than he would likely admit; they, at least, see a point in life, something worth struggling for and fighting for. Puritanical though he sees those societies to be, uncivilized as he imagines them, he surely recognizes, on some subterranean level, just how uncivilized were the means by which his own ancestors succeeded in remaking the world.
Indeed, practically the only people in the book who feel any sort of passion for anything at all are those Islamic terrorists, who turn up with guns blazing to stop what is, I think most readers would agree, a fairly horrifying enterprise: the imposition of sex tourism upon the earth, with primarily Westerners (along with rich people from the non-Western world) acting as consumers and the rest of the planet, the poor who are supposedly unsullied by modernity, primarily acting as service providers. They are not quite heroes in the book, but they seem, at least, a little more human than the others. They feel something, they believe in something.
One wonders whether we are supposed to see the flaw in the Western narrator being that he is incapable of understanding human beings — the Thai prostitutes, and the Muslim terrorists — because, mired in ennui, he (and his fellow Westerners) are in an important sense no longer human. Certainly, his apparent death at the end of the novel is meaningless, and feels like it; we realize he was already dead when the story began. But as for the ennui, one is tempted to say that, as with any number of thinkers, the diagnosis is correct — the Western world has in some sense lost its way — but the prescription is unhelpful.
In another sense, one might say, “This is what you get when you read Lovecraft, but don’t move on to supplement that with Arthur C. Clarke or Stephen Baxter or Greg Egan.” Which is, in another sense, to say that Houellebecq characters’world-weary ennui — and, for a novelist who constantly writes such stories, I think it’s fair to suggest the ennui is also Houellebecq’s — smacks of not just laziness, but also of a failure to bother to take up the challenge.
While Houellebecq references Camus at the beginning of this novel — “Father died last year,” yes, but also the inversion of the (perhaps Arab) Muslims killing French tourists at the end of the book — he seems to have missed the point of other of Camus’ works; the importance of the rebel, the necessity of manufacturing one’s own meaning of life (and the possibility of doing so heroically). It is the fashion to moan and gripe that life is meaningless — teenagers do it, mainly because imprisoned in schools all day they have so few chances to engage with the world in ways that could be meaningful. But for an adult to do so, it is, I fear, a cop-out.
The line from the beginning of Dante’s Commedia echoes throughout this text, though it is not referenced: “… and I could not find my way out.” Houellebecq’s narrator can only envision one kind of escape from the hell of modern France, the hell of his pointless life, the hell of adulthood (for Houellebecq argues, in his text on Lovecraft, that adulthood is hell — excerpt here). That escape is to Thailand, where he had talked of going with his lover, who was to leave France, to miss nothing, to simply take up a life managing a glorified brothel for foreign tourists: in other words, an escape into a life of exploitation and luxury in some poor dark corner of the world… namely, an escape into a kind of neocolonial reconstruction of the past.
The notion expressed by Azuma Hiroki in the essay “SF as Hamlet” comes to mind, of how science-fiction is the last refuge of modernity. (Not modernity in the sense of right-now-ness, but the sense of modernity as an historical moment, succeeded by postmodernity.) In Azuma’s terms, modernity was philosophy as Hegel practiced it, a kind of yearning for totalities and absolutes, an optimistic belief in the unification of different kinds of knowledge, thought, and comprehension through which a single, coherent view of the world would become possible. As Azuma notes, this was chucked out the window sometime around the mid-twentieth century, for reasons any sensible person ought to know. And precisely as these ideas were abandoned even in the mainstream, a refuge for the “dream of totality” was established: science fiction.
This concept avails us of much that is useful in assessing not just Houellebecq (who has himself written more SFnal novels, The Possibility of an Island being one) but also the works of other “mainstream” authors who have written SF novels (Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, P.D. James) and why their work is almost always unrelentingly dystopian and, indeed, deeply contrary to the optimism that for so long characterized SF.
It is, I suspect, a difference in cultures: SF people see the cultural ennui of today, when they see it at all, as an unfortunate present circumstance, not as a permanent and final state of history. The future is an undefined quantity, an open question. While they see the flaws of humanity as clearly as anyone, even the most pessimistic of SF authors go to some pains to do more than simply foretell futility, horror, and tragedy. They may bounce against the ennui of the present, the tragedies and frustrations of the present, but they take it in both hands, bend it as hard as they can, and finally snap it, so that the sparks that fly from it may awaken us again. My impression is that SF people — people who consume and produce SF — are not all starry-eyed optimists (not in the least) but they tend to have some of that holy fire still burning in their imaginations; they are still able to — and enjoy trying to — envision the possibilities that better tools and better understanding of the universe can open up; to envision the struggles that may lie ahead, and how people who choose to give a shit might respond to them. I think that kind of vision is something much harder to summon up if you’re not an SF person; it’s much easier to miss the half of the binary that Kim Stanley Robinson posits in The Years of Rice and Salt, namely, that history is a tragedy on the individual level, but a comedy on the collective one.
(I may be wrong, but I am having trouble remembering a single “SF” novel written by a “mainstream” branded author that wasn’t somehow dystopian; I’m not counting people who have bifurcated careers, mind, like Iain M. Banks, just those authors whose careers are solidly in the mainstream shelves of bookstores, and who then take it upon themselves to write a piece of speculative fiction. My dissatisfaction tends not to be the kneejerk kind that so many SF fans demonstrate, but rather, rooted in the pain of reading work by someone who doesn’t speak the language fluently; or who doesn’t quite grasp the culture. It’s a similar pain to how I feel, indeed, reading one of Philip K. Dick’s attempts at the mainstream novel… something’s missing, and it is unpleasant to witness. People like, say, Michael Chabon, they’re the exception (from the little I’ve read of his work): they’re bicultural, in a sense, and that’s a fine thing.)
This holy fire I mentioned above: it’s the difference between moaning, “It’s the end of the world as we know it,” and declaring, “It’s the end of the world as we know it… but we can try build a better one, maybe, if we put our minds to it.” Or even, “It’s the end of the world as we know it… and I feel fine.” Maybe it’s not a fundamental cultural difference, but a difference of internalized fashions, I’m not sure. I do know that Houellebecq does not show any sign of having it, and so while perhaps he is trying to incite disgust in his work, to drive people in the other direction, I get the distinct sense instead this book is about luxuriating in the pointlessness, and masturbating (mentally, emotionally, philosophically, physically, artistically) in the filth of a dying civilization. It’s true: plenty of people are doing that, which is precisely why that civilization is falling apart in the ways it is; well, and doing nothing but point and sneer is the easiest thing for a moderately intelligent person to do.
But what I’ve figured out so far in my life is that doing the easiest thing is rarely, fundamentally, satisfying, and it is still less satisfying to read about. Someone else’s theory about the end of history is never as satisfying as someone else’s vision of how history is not at an end, but only shifting once again, in some direction we hadn’t quite guessed.
And before you imagine I’m being prudish about all the (relatively tedious) sex in the book, and that this might be what motivates my criticism: go and read Charles Stross’ Saturn’s Children; to me, it seems essentially to be the anti-Platform. It’s not only sexual as all get-out — the main character is a sex robot — but it’s also about as end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it, for an audience of humans anyway (at the start of the story, humanity has long been extinct), and yet manages to be funny, gloriously exultant, and the opposite of everything I find wrong with Houellebecq’s book. Indeed, what emerges from the comparison is that creating a text like Saturn’s Children takes an incredibly larger amount and degree of work than a text like Platform. The laziness bemoaned in the latter novel is ot just characteristic of the audience, or the text… I can without hesitation say that it’s also a fault of the author.
But then, we all knew that apathy and misanthropy were never particularly inventive, thoughtful, interesting, or creative responses to the problems of human existence, didn’t we?
UPDATE: Forgot to post this link, to a post by Christopher Moore which debunks one of the many lazinesses in the book in an interesting way… don’t know where Houellebecq got that idea that Thai culture is absent a belief in ghosts, but it’s dead wrong. And I’m sure he got much more wrong, too…