Nothing New Under the Sun


Nothing New Under the Sun


Nothing New Under the Sun
New books dissected over email.
July 16 2003 12:43 PM





I was actually glad you called me crazy yesterday—I like to think it's a tribute to Houellebecq himself. The circumstances here in Paris, where I'm writing from, are ideal for Célinian delirium, or Rimbaud's déglement de tous les sens, or other particularly French literary versions of madness. So, while you've been staying up late, yearning for Houellebecqian nights, I've been filing from a sweltering walk-up apartment: According to yesterday's Le Monde the only places in the world hotter than Paris were Algiers and Dubai. It's sticky and disorienting, almost like being Michel on the hot Thai beach in Platform or Bruno at the resort at Cap d'Agde in The Elementary Particles … but just almost.

It's a good question you ask: Where does Houellebecq fall on Edmund Wilson's scale? Houellebecq's critique is certainly more thorough than Sinclair Lewis', and even Wyndham Lewis'. Neither Lewis ever turned his back altogether on the oppressive structures of the bourgeoisie. Neither built up a system (economic or otherwise) as comprehensive as Platform's sex tourism, only to prove how untenable such a system was. But I don't think we can place Houellebecq with Flaubert or Céline or maybe even Genet in that category of renunciators. This is true if only for the reason that he comes so late in this tradition, much as Dr. Johnson said of Paradise Lost and its place in the tradition of epic. Houellebecq's politics are, fortunately, never entirely clear. (A book about him just came out in France, with a chapter called "Is Houellebecq a Reactionary?"—but it never really answers the question.) Still, for the purposes of Wilson we can probably come to a tentative conclusion. Michel Houellebecq is more radical than Eminem, less radical than Proudhon.

I agree that in Platform he likes to fire off his salvos without ever really deserting the modernity that creates so much misery. It's here that his narrator seems most like him. Michel understands that he's a cipher: He calls himself "a modest parasite … a mediocre individual in every possible sense"; elsewhere he declares: "in most circumstances in my life, I have had as much freedom as has a vacuum cleaner." So, he inhabits this middle realm between engagement and renunciation. At one point he explains: "I observe the world as it unfurls. … I can do no more than observe." When you brought up Whitman, I thought of the line from "Song of Myself" where he's "both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it." Houellebecq seems too intrigued by the possibilities of exotic sex to take himself out of the game completely. He's wondering at it, indulging in it, and excoriating it—sometimes all three at once.

Your main criticism of Platform—that it transfers the blame outside the culture—is just. In Platform the most obvious villains are foreign terrorists, and much of the action does take place far away from France. But this, I think, is where our disagreement really lies. In a sense I don't think the blame really is transferred. Houellebecq goes out of his way to remind us that the tourist community in Thailand is nothing more than a small-scale version of what we're used to in the West. It's a microcosm of Europe. "I realized that everything the civilized world had produced in the way of tourists was gathered here on the two-kilometer stretch of the seafront," Michel says of Patong Beach; later he remarks that "all the rich or moderately wealthy world was here." And at the end of the book, after the sex club has been bombed, he says of his final destination: "Pattaya is the end of the road, it is a sort of cesspool, the ultimate sewer where the sundry waste of western neurosis winds up." Houellebecq hates those Muslims, but it turns out that he also hates the people the Muslims hate.

Toward the end of The Elementary Particles, one half-brother moves to the most remote town on the western coast of Ireland, which Houellebecq tells us is "the extreme limit of the western world." In a way, Platform is a geographic sequel to the earlier novel; after he had reached the frontier of Europe Houellebecq must have discovered that he had no choice but to keep moving things further and further around the globe. But leaving Europe does not mean leaving Europe behind, and one of the central lessons of Thailand is that there is no escape from the terrible Western condition, whatever that may be. The two kilometers of beachfront are Europe condensed; and the tourist who haunts them is the most repugnant manifestation of Western man. That's why I think Platform is the bleaker book, the more radical critique. So, on this we can agree: It's most definitely fucked up.

In Platform Houellebecq (with a nod to Alex Garland) talks about the "double-bind paradox" in tourism, which means that the traveler's frenetic search for places that aren't "touristy" is always undermined by his very presence. The tourist is "forced to move on, following a plan whose very fulfillment, little by little, renders it futile." This hopeless paradox is clearly about something larger than tourism. Is Houellebecq's "tourist" any different from what he would elsewhere call Man? We try to get away—we even send our characters to the other side of the world—but we are still faced with the devastating problem of finding ourselves at the other end.

For Houellebecq anything that's supposed to bring us outside ourselves—that is, tourism and sex—only leads us right back to where we started. "It is in our relations with other people that we gain a sense of ourselves," he writes aphoristically, and since this is Houellebecq we know what's coming next—"it's that, pretty much, that makes relations with other people unbearable."

Should we let him have the last word?

Keith Gessen is working toward his MFA in fiction at Syracuse University. He has written about books for Dissent, The Nation, and Aaron Matz is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at Yale. He has reviewed books for the American Scholar and the New York Observer.