Saturday, May 20, 2006

Platform by Michel Houellebecq

He is the bad boy of contemporary French literature, decried as being offensive, over the top in his sexual explicitness and inciting trouble with the numerous followers of Islam in France. The author himself defends his writing as simply reflecting his very dim view as to the modern state of humanity and as being in the same mood as Camus and Celine before him.

When I was reading Platform, my first instinct was to think of Brett Easton Ellis writing about the rampant consumerism of modern society: we simply consume and become brands - we equate a Naomi or a Samuel with a Pepsi or a Honda, and glibly consume both. With Houellebecq, it is sex: on almost every page, there is some form of sexual activity described in matter of fact detail, so that very soon there is nothing special about it at all. There is no emotion, no love, no tenderness, just sex endlessly on tap and best delivered by young Thai prostitutes. Michel says he wants more, even on page one, but in a way that defers belief:
I'm not married, either. I've had the opportunity several times, but I never took it. That said, I really love women. It's always been a bit of a regret, for me, being single. It's particularly awkward on holiday. People are suspicious of single men on holiday, after they get to a certain age: they assume that they're selfish, and probably a bit pervy; I can't say they're wrong.
He is 40: these are his thoughts as his father is buried and are typical of his embedded self involment; one redeeming feature is that he is fully aware that he is self involved and disengaged - every so often there is a suggestion that he wishes things were different, but ultimately his lifestyle seems to be a matter of choice for him.

Of course, his father has been killed by a Moslem - this is revealed by a quick Police investigation which finds that dad had been having it off with of his maid. Her incredibly stupid brother "struts round like the guardian of the one true faith" thinking she is a slut and has killed Michel's dad to protect her from the infidel. Given the acute tensions between Moslems and non-Moslems in France, you can understand how this might provoke: he seems to be attacking directly the notion of the middle class that Moslem attitudes and tradtions must be protected, no matter what offense they may give. There is another episode towards the end of the novel where Moslem tradtional belief is blatantly crossed, with another episode of bloodshed in the name of protecting that tradition. He almost dares us to have no respect for these tradtions, in the brutal way in which they are protected.

These are not his only targets - every so often we have a patch of text where Michel (and you wonder about the line between author and narrator in these) goes on about one thing or another - modern capitalistic travel firms
Taking a plane today, regardless of the destination, amounts to being treated like shit for the duration of the flight. Crammed into a ridiculously tiny space from which it is impossible to move ... you are greeted from the outset with a series of embargoes announced by stewardesses sporting fake smiles...
or the ideology of Agatha Christie novels. I think the funnies was when he tries reading some blockbuster fiction - The Firm and Total Control: he finds them so bad that he buries them on the beach.

But the book is really of Michel's navigation of his way through this unsatisfying life - he has some sort of accounting job in the Ministry of Cultural Affairs where he can remain completely disinterested, he says "I am not happy but I aspire to be happy", loves travel brochures and their star system for indicating the intensity of the happiness to expect. He has no friends, gets his kicks with a daily visit to a peepshow, gets along OK with his workmates, probably passes quite successfully as joe average. We don't know how long he has been stuck in this routine, but his father's death changes it all: he takes off on a package tour to Thailand. This part of the book reads a lot like a travelogue - we get a devastating description of his fellow travellers and their various factions, snippets of histroy of wherever he happens to be, personal histories of the people he's talking to and, of course, complete reports of his sexual encounters. Of all the women we meet, Valerie is the one he mentions most frequently, yet he never makes any sort of move on her, despite noticing that she has a spectacular body and takes most trouble to engage with him.

Back home, however, thanks to a chance encounter they do finally get together. He can't actually see why she'd see anything in him, which is actually quite charmingly honest, as he really isn't much of a catch and he is gracious enough to see she is. Clearly, however, she does and for the first time in his life, he finds love - something I think that he has managed to maintain some sort of belief in, despite its elusiveness. All that meaningless sex doesn't mean he has completely shed his innocence (to quote Tim Parks' Judge Savage). So, after they've slept together and talked and he's quizzed her on why she wants to be with her, he comes to this realisation:
It was then, somewhat incredulously, that I realised that I was going to see Valerie again, and that we would probably be happy together. It was so unexpected, this joy, that I wanted to cry; I had to change the subject.
Here's where the central ideas of the book, insofar as there are any, come to the fore. Valerie works for a large French package tour company, which is in danger of losing its edge - her job is to find some market niche which has not been inhabited but which, once they occupy it, will give them control for a fair chunk of time. Houellebecq is not afraid to get his hands dirty and write at length about the tourism industry, marketing, how things work in business - something that is completely natural for his characters and sets up a logical foundation for the great idea that Michel, not Valerie, has to rejuvenate the loss making parts of the business - since everyone goes on a package tour with some hope of a fling, that should be a guaranteed feature of the package. And so they start developing and marketing sex tourism - their one big mistake being that their first such venture is to Thailand, this time to that part of Thailand which is most under the thumb of Moslem fundamentalists.

A lot of the reviews of this book don't rate it very highly, some dismiss it completely and my book club members were very mixed in their attitudes. I guess I actually related to Michel in ways that they didnt, because I ended up loving many parts of this book and was forced to tears by my realisation of what the end meant (not that everyone agrees with me on my interpretation, but you can't have everything).


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