Critical labeling of French novelist Michel Houellebecq as a misogynist, Islamophobe, reactionary, etc. has been self-perpetuating and viral (and there it is again), turning him into a caricature easy to righteously paddle in reviews. It’s true that Houellebecq criticism has been frequently fixated on his novels’ nastier, more unguarded passages and qualities, but it only adds to the caricaturing to ignore all of the thoughtfully measured reviews from the likes of James Wood and a conscientiously censorious John Updike. Even the bad press has been good press, reinforcing his “dangerous” reputation as a must-read writer who says the most terrible things eloquently.
No pariah, the now-famous author’s books have earned multiple awards in France, culminating in the prestigious Prix Goncourt for this one. In it, his funny response to being made a caricature was to make himself a character—near the top of the cast is “Michel Houellebecq,” a well-known French novelist with a reputation for misanthropy and shock tactics who now lives in Ireland (as did the author at the time). The idea isn’t groundbreaking—writers as diverse as Cervantes, Roth, and Charlie Kaufman have dabbled in bald self-reference—and there’s already a similar “Michel” in most of his other novels, but Houellebecq engineers it cleverly here. It’s amusing each umpteenth time he’s referred to grandiosely by his résumé (“‘Yes, it’s a bit byzantinesque,’ the author of Platform agreed heartily”). At times the author’s self-parody is a mocking burlesque. Houellebecq draws his “fictional” counterpart as a boring slob (“He stank a little, but less than a corpse”) who gulps wine and meets with some hilariously extreme violence. A cop notes, “He had rarely seen someone with such an awful fucking life.”
This artful channeling of the author’s partial low self-esteem is secondary to the story of main character Jed Martin, an artist who is working on the painting Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market when we meet him. It’s part of a long series of realistic paintings of people at work that began with portrayals of more mundane shopkeepers and prostitutes. Fickle and prone to stretches of inactivity, Martin’s previous projects include photographs of manmade workaday objects and stylized blown-up shots of Michelin maps. The occupational paintings earn him fame and fortune (he hires “Houellebecq” to write gallery notes, which opens a friendship), and it’s to the real author’s credit that Jed’s pieces are visualizable and believably good (if he hadn’t gone into writing, could Michel have been Jed?).
The Elementary Particles and Platform were marked by near-pornographic sexuality mixed with extended, grad thesis-style essays on subjects like Agatha Christie. The essays remain—”Houellebecq” carries on intelligently about William Morris and houseflies—while the sex is limited to a few couplings between Jed and leggy Michelin exec Olga. The blunt, detached sex is missed, but it’s compensated for with ruminations on representation versus reality, and something new for the author—sensitive insight into the relationship between father and son, via Jed and his distant, dying architect father. And as in The Possibility of an Island, there’s (an only vaguely ironic) optimism for the future at the end, no more or less convincing than Jed’s thought that ends Part Two: “The world presented itself absolutely as a rational system, devoid of magic or any particular interest.”