Retired Quebecoises on a Pornographic Rampage
Michel Houellebecq, Platform (2001)
The main character in this novel, (coincidentally?) named Michel, is typical of Houellebecq’s narrators: a lonely, disconnected, middle-aged man with a boring but well-paid job who wanders through life seething with misanthropy and sexual frustration. In this case, however, he goes on a vacation in Thailand, where he meets Valerie, a much younger woman who works in the travel industry and who, somewhat improbably, falls for him and becomes his lover when they return to Paris.
The first reference to Canada comes just after Michel and Valerie have sex in her childhood bedroom while visiting her parents for a week-end:
On a shelf, just above the Bibliotheque Rose series, there were several little exercise books, carefully bound. “Oh, those,” she said. “I used to do them when I was about ten, twelve. Have a look if you like. They’re Famous Five stories.”
“How do you mean?”
“Unpublished Famous Five stories. I used to write them myself, using the same characters.”
I took them down: there was Five in Outer Space, Five on a Canadian Adventure. I suddenly had an image of a little girl full of imagination, a rather lonely girl, whom I would never know. (139-40)
This is not a reference to Canada as it is, but rather to Canada as it might exist in the mind of a young French girl: a distant, mysterious, exciting and probably slightly dangerous place where heroic children would go to have an adventure. It is completely innocent of reality.
It also seems a bit out of date; as a character, Valerie is in her mid-twenties when the novel takes place in 2000-2001, so she would have been born around 1975. She says she wrote the stories when she was 10 or 12, which means they were written in the mid-eighties. Now, admittedly, large areas of Canada were an unoccupied wilderness at that time – large areas of Canada are an unoccupied wilderness now – but there were also major cities, railroads crossing the country, radio stations, TV channels, air travel, the CN Tower (tallest free-standing building in the world at that time) – in short, all the markers of a modern industrial nation, which makes the 1980s seem a bit late in the game for Canada to be playing the role of uncivilized wilderness where European children go for adventures.
On the other hand, we can give Valerie credit as an early practitioner of Enid Blyton fan fiction.
The second reference is somewhat more bizarre and requires a lengthy quotation. At this point in the novel Michel, Valerie, and Valerie’s boss Jean-Yves have gone to stay at a resort in Cuba. Valerie and Jean-Yves work for the same travel company, and they are in the process of expanding the company’s offerings to include a chain of resorts catering to European sex tourists. (Needless to say, it was Michel who originally suggested this idea.) The trip to the Cuban resort constitutes “research” for the sex resorts. This passage begins by describing some of the other guests at the resort and then spins off into one of Michel’s pornographic fantasies:
As I was heading back to my table, having obtained, with extreme difficulty, my fourth cocktail, I saw the man approach one of the neighbouring tables, occupied by a compact group of fifty-something Quebecoises. I had already noticed them when they arrived: they were thickset and tough, all teeth and blubber, talking incredibly loudly. It wasn’t difficult to understand how they had managed to bury their husbands so quickly. I had a feeling that it wouldn’t be wise to cut in front of them in line at the buffet, or to grab a bowl of cereal that one of them had her eyes on. As the aging hunk approached the table, they shot him amorous glances, almost becoming women again for the moment. He strutted extravagantly in front of them, accentuating his coarseness at regular intervals by gestures through his swimsuit, as though to confirm the physical existence of his meat n’ three. The Quebecoises seemed thrilled by his suggestive company; their aged, worn-out bodies still craved sunshine. He played his part well, whispered softly into the ears of these old creatures, referring to them, Cuban fashion, as “mi corazon” or “mi amor.” Nothing more would come of this, that was clear – he was content to arouse some last quivers in their aging pussies – but perhaps that was sufficient for them to go home with the impression that they had had a wonderful holiday, and for them to recommend the resort to their girlfriends. They had at least twenty years left in them. I sketched out the plot of a socially aware pornographic film entitled Senior Citizens on the Rampage. It portrayed two gangs operating in a resort, one a group of elderly Italian men, the other of pensionettes from Quebec. Armed with numchucks and ice picks, both gangs submit naked, bronzed teenagers to the most vile indecencies. Eventually, of course, they come face to face in the middle of a Club Med yacht. One after another the crew members, quickly rendered helpless, are raped before being thrown overboard by the bloodthirsty pensionettes. The film ends with a massive orgy of pensioners, while the boat, having slipped its moorings, sails straight for the South Pole. (154-55)
Hard to know where to begin with that; these “bloodthirsty pensionettes” (“pensionette” seems to be roughly equivalent to “pensioner” or “retiree” here) from Quebec are certainly a long way from the polite, humble Canadian we’ve encountered elsewhere. The only reference to Canada that remotely compares with this is the description of Canadians, and French-Canadians in particular, as “big ruthless swine” in Bolano’s 2666 – but even there, that opinion was expressed by a character sometime between the First and Second World Wars.
This passage about the Quebecoises reads so neatly as a catalogue of misogynistic stereotypes that it almost seems like parody: the women are “tough,” they are “all teeth and blubber” and prone to violence at the buffet table; apparently they have somehow killed off their husbands, either directly or simply by driving them to an early grave through the sheer force of their abominable personalities. The reference to the bowl of cereal seems a little weak – wouldn’t it make more sense if the contested food item were more desirable (and redolent of violence), like a hunk of rare beef? But maybe the point is that they’re prepared to fight for even the most inconsequential food.
Does this track some perception of Canadians in general, or French-Canadians in particular? Are Quebeckers looked down on by vacationers from other countries at tropical resorts, or are they considered rude or unpleasant guests? Does some segment of the French population harbour a prejudice against French-Canadians? (They certainly didn’t in Proust’s Time Regained.) Does this passage even represent prejudice against Quebeckers, or is it simply misogyny directed at women who happen to be from Quebec?
Whatever the case regarding general anti-Quebec prejudice, Michel clearly finds these (Quebec) women weirdly threatening, and his fear and revulsion at them takes over his train of thought and turns it towards the “socially aware pornographic film” that he outlines in his mind. By making the Quebec pensionettes carry out acts of overt sexual violence in his film scenario, he seems to be trying to justify the fear and sexual horror he instinctively feels while watching them interact with the Cuban man and his “meat and three” (which perhaps should be “meat and two“?).
Ultimately, it seems the unpleasant character ascribed to these “Quebecoises” is related less to their being from Quebec, and more to the fact that they are old, and therefore sexually undesirable, women – not really a group for which Michel, in the novel, expresses much sympathy. (He seems to hold to Seidel’s dictum: “A naked woman my age is just a total nightmare.”) For him, there is really only one woman – one person, if you come to that – that he views with any genuine affection, and that is Valerie, who, being a gorgeous woman in her twenties who will do anything to satisfy him sexually, can seem like little more than a middle-aged man’s pornographic fantasy.
The Neil Young Connection
Of course, there has to be a Neil Young connection. Apparently, among his other accomplishments, Houellebecq also co-wrote the article on Neil Young for something called the Dictionnaire du Rock:
Coauteur d’une notice sur Neil Young dans le très recommandable Dictionnaire du rock dirigé par Michka Assayas….
That’s a passing mention from an article about Houellebecq; if you want to give your French chops a workout, you can read the entire Neil Young entry; according to Wikipedia, Houellebecq wrote the second half, so maybe you’ll be able to tell when his distinctive style kicks in.
We may as well wrap up with a Neil Young song; here’s one in a slightly Houellebecqian mode: