Michel Houellebecq’s Platform

I am not a superstitious person, nor do I have any faith in the supernatural, but I believe some rare figures throughout history have had the gift of prophecy. Doubtless their fortunetelling owes more to some heightened intellectual sensitivity than any god-given talent, but the result is the same: an ability to predict, with frightening accuracy, the future. Michel Houellebecq is a living prophet, a literary clairvoyant whose conjectures have been proven correct too often to be mere coincidence. Let’s work backwards, from his most recently published work: Serotonin, depicting a farmer’s revolt in France against increasing global competition, appeared at the height of the infamous gilets jaunes protests; prior to that, his 2015 novel Submission, prophesying a future Islamic takeover of France, was published on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo shootings. Platform, Houellebecq’s third novel, seems to have inaugurated the trend: it describes the European sex tourism industry, culminating in an Islamic terror attack in Thailand. It appeared one week prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks, and one year before the 2002 bombing of Bali’s tourist district, which killed more than 200 people of 20 various nationalities.

We begin with an opening out of Camus, though instead of a dead mother, we get a deceased dad: “Father died last year. I don’t subscribe to the theory that we only become truly adult when our parents die; we never become truly adult.” Our protagonist is Michel – not the last of Houellebecq’s characters to share his first name – a government bureaucrat living a thoroughly mundane, unfulfilling life (“I had neither a regular sexual partner nor any real close friends”), and adult in age only. Without attachments, without real responsibility, his life consists in grasping at fleeting pleasures: pornography and peep shows, with the occasional visit to an unlicensed massage parlour: “This happened if my dick wasn’t feeling too good, when it seemed to resemble a useless, demanding little appendage that smelled like cheese. Then I needed a girl to take it in her hands, to go into raptures, however faked, over its vigor, the richness of its semen.” Like so many of Houellebecq’s characters, Michel is an archetype of masculinity in the 21st century: sex-obsessed, self-centred, ineffectual, passive and ultimately pathetic. “I wasn’t unhappy,” he tells us, “I had 128 channels.” The death of his father – a murder, incidentally, at the hands of the brother of his North African housekeeper – leaves him with a small fortune, some three million francs, and the ability to turn his back on his dead-end job and inject some excitement in his life. Naturally, he chooses to go to Thailand, as part of a travel group of similarly disaffected Europeans looking to escape their routine lives. “The minute they have a couple of days of freedom, the inhabitants of Western Europe dash off to the other side of the world, they go halfway around the world in a plane, they behave –literally – like escaped convicts.”

In The Revolt of the Elites, a clear influence upon Houellebecq, Christopher Lasch describes the worldview and value system propagated by the new Western elites as being “essentially a tourist’s view of the world,” eschewing attachments to specific cultures and places in favour of the “image of a global bazaar,” replete with exotic foods and music, customs and manners, but always to be enjoyed only shallowly, “with no questions asked and no commitments required.” Houellebecq’s Michel visits Thailand in the same way he has lived in France, not as someone eager to engage with a culture and history older and grander than a single man could comprehend in a lifetime, but as a greedy tourist, eager to extract what enjoyment he can while offering only the minimum of himself in return. A quintessentially Houellebecqian sentence: “While we were visiting the Temple of Dawn, I made a mental note to buy some more Viagra when I found an open pharmacy.” The Thai prostitutes he visits range widely in age: some are very young, jumping at the opportunity to earn more money in a week than the average citizen earns in a month, while others are mothers, banking their earnings to return to their villages and feed their children. Shortly after this scene, we return to France, where we get a parallel description of France’s economic changes under globalization: a farming family, finding it increasingly difficult to compete with international competition driving down the cost of food, finally decide to sell their assets and instead invest in real estate.

They had dedicated their lives to a hopeless task. They lived in a country where, compared to speculate investment, investment in production brought little return; he understood that now. In their first year, the rents from the studio flats alone brought in more money than all his years of work.

A commonality linking all of Houellebecq’s characters: they have been ground down, degraded, by forces – social or economic – larger than themselves.

The climax of the novel comes when a group of Islamic fundamentalists attack one of these sex tourism resorts, striking at this symbol of Western sexual decadence with guns and bombs, and here again the astute reader will not dismiss this plot turn as Houellebecq being merely provocative or prejudicial. More than any living writer or commentator, he understands the absolute incompatibility of these competing life visions, the modern and secular West commodifying sex – and thereby yoking even love to market forces – and the fundamentalist Islamic vision, which cannot brook even an exposed hand or ankle for fear of the sexual forces that sight might unleash. Houellebecq’s many detractors miss this most fundamental source of his appeal: that we are all living in Houellebecq’s world, whether we realize it or not.