Monday, July 30, 2007

Sex And The Angry Western Guy

A few years ago I read and liked Michel Houellebecq's second novel, The Elementary Particles. So I was paying attention when the reviews of his latest book, Platform, started appearing a few years ago. And what I remember thinking is, "Wow, some people are really pissed off."

This summer, I read the book and was retroactively amazed. I love this book. As my colleague Captain C. says, it is nominally a book about sex tourism. It is also at some basic level a love story, and in these modes the book is simply a highly engaging narrative. But Platform also offers fresh reflections on the seemingly inevitable market-ization of life; on the strange non-sexiness of the post-sexual revolution; on the incredible boredom of living and working in the modern western world; and on cultural politics.

The story centers on Michel Renault, a French bureaucrat in an artsy field, who goes to Thailand on a tour. He finds that sex with Thai prostitutes is sexier, more fun, and in a way even more intimate than having unpaid sex back home. On the trip Michel meets Valérie; back in Paris they fall in love, spend all their free time together, and have excellent and varied sex. Valérie, it turns out, works for the tourism industry, and together with her boss, the two of them develop a business plan to offer sex with locals for money in various "exotic" places: a kind of kinky "Club Med."

The natural enemies of Michel's life and plans are the right-thinking French bourgeoisie and the religion of Islam, and Michel is dismissive and insulting of both. He also attacks American fiction, European culture, the Guides du Routard (a kind of French Rough Guide), sado-masochistic sex, and family pieties of all kinds.

Whether all this gives a reader a shiver of recognition and literary pleasure or makes her want to roll her eyes is a highly subjective matter. But critical reviewers of Platform are not just annoyed or bored by the book; they're angry. Why?

In his review for The Guardian, James Buchan calls Michel a "reactionary libertine," whose free-market defense of sex tourism illustrates how "the novel proceeds by assertion." Of course, just because Michel offers this argument does not mean that the novel endorses it. A book with so much to say about the screwed-up quality of relationships, sex, and work in our capitalist society clearly represents no simple defense of free markets.

But Buchan is also angered by Platform's criticisms of western culture. He writes, "His view of European culture - scary, over-feminised, lonely, demeaning, faithless - is that of the worst sort of low-grade Muslim propaganda." But the fact that a novel is culturally critical cannot make it a bad novel.

To my mind, one of the novel's most interesting elements is its ambiguous stance toward the commodification of life's pleasures and relationships. Michel's defense of sex tourism is, indeed, based on the justness of the exchange: we want good sex (and authenticity, and power, and the exotic, and so on . . .); the people of Thailand want money. Fair exchange.

But when we consider the question of why we cannot have good sex, relationships, and so on with one another, the novel suggests that our tendency to commodify pleasures, and each other, is part of our problem. Michel is furious at the way sado-masochistic sex has become so common, and part of what infuriates him is what he sees as the inherent contractual nature of the sado-masochistic interaction: You must do X; I will do Y; I am willing to do Z, no more, no less. Michel pines for a kind of intimate selflessness, which he finds in Valérie, and which she seems to have despite her immersion in the world of commodified pleasures. There is no simple moral about human relationships here.

One of the myths we rely on to avoid thinking about the ways we commodify each other is to think that while we commodify things in our free market ways, we do not commodify people; intimacy and love somehow carve out a special commodification-free zone. So family and marriage make wholesome and selfless what might otherwise be an exchange of goods -- sexual goods, caretaking goods, emotional goods. Part of Platform's effect is to undercut this comforting myth. And this is naturally infuriating to some people.

There is much more to say about the specific ideas and theses suggested in the book, including the answer the book suggests to the question bothering Captain Colossus's Thai bloggers: what is wrong with Westerners and sex? I return to these, and other matters relating to Platform, in further posts.


Captain Colossal said...

Platform was actually the first of his books that I read, and I was expecting to find it soul-destroying etc. In fact, found it altogether moving. And it forced me to think about commodification head on, which was good. Although I was not entirely unresentful about having to do so.

I read it the same summer as I read Never Let Me Go -- I want to think about how they compare up. Maybe just because I was describing the Elementary Particles to somebody as about sex and cloning, and they responded "Don't you mean Never Let Me Go?" Funny.

Octopus Grigori said...

But where do Western women go to pay for sex?

BTW, with the hot button key words you all have scattered through the first couple posts, you guys are going to have lots of visitors stumbling across this blog through various Google searches. It'll be a nice mix of Amherst grads, randy 16 year-olds, and sex fugitives. (There's some overlap there.)

Noko Marie said...

Hey, CC. It is funny, Elementary Particles and Never Let Me Go both fitting the same description. I can't remember EP well enough to think about them together right now but I'm planning to reread it soon.

What I remember best from Never Let Me Go is feeling all the emotions of it wash over me without feeling the emotions themselves... it was like being in a mood bath. I've had that experience with other books by Ishiguro too. I like it.

Hi Octopus, actually this matter of western women comes up in Platform, though it doesn't get a lot of attention. Michel (the character) seems to think the situations are comparable, and for similiar reasons -- a kind of yearning for a non-alienated sexuality M. associates with places outside of our own. Raising all kinds of possibly unhappy questions about the nature of being a "tourist..."

Noko Marie said...

My follow-up post, addressing the question of what Platform has to say about Westerners and sex, is