Monday, October 26, 2009

Michel Houellebecq's PLATFORM

I've been reading some contemporary novels lately. Most of my fiction perusal has been limited to the "ancients" -- the 20th century and before. Curious as to what's been getting praised -- or at least discussed -- amongst the newest releases, I turned to a novel of "greatness", "brilliance", "stunning achievement", by an author deigned by a New Statesman reviewer as "the sharpest and most perceptive chronicler of our era". Who could resist? It's not as if we'd heard blurbs this wildly laudatory before, what?

Platform, a 2002 release by Michel Houellebecq, explores, in first-person, the personal and collective guilt in the way of Western consumerism, complacency, and -- ultimately -- nihilism. The comparisons between the authorial and narrative "Michel"s are easy to make. It's unnecessary and redundant to outline the story here: for those in the dark, a succinct synopsis can be found rather easily in many on-line reviews. But I'd like to make a few comments which haven't been touched on, surprisingly, in any of the many otherwise excellent takes on the book.

I have a big problem with the credibility of the narrative voice in any work of fiction when that voice seems incongruous, even false. I don't mean only in the simple narrative sense (contradictions in stated belief or detail within the novel, which also occurs in Platform), but in a a deeper, more abiding imprint. Houellebecq is not subtle in his lacerating comments. He spares no one, including himself (or, er, the "other" Michel). He's a drone, an antisocial bureaucrat with zero ambition, charm, warmth. Yet this hard-hitting realistic chronicler of Western decadence is to be believed when Valerie, the sexy, intelligent, rich, ambitious, curious, emotionally generous, uninhibited, shapely twenty-eight year old not only lusts for the lifeless protagonist thirteen years her senior, but initiates the pursuit, and incredibly, after a brief cold front when Michel isn't up to the task, falls hard (on the bed, and in spirit) upon their first meeting back in France. Now, even in a more plausible coupling, any woman spurned, or even given the noncommital cold shoulder, isn't going to pursue the possibilites, no matter what the man does after that. Unlike the book's Michel, who had previously only hooked up with four women in his life, and only then when drunk at a bar, I, and many of my male friends, acquaintances, former work associates, others' penned accounts, and long and frequent observations of the mating ritual, have seen this point (not pardoning the pun) driven home forcefully.

But, apparently, Michel is the only man in Western society for whom realized uninhibited lust-coupledom is possible, and which can cover up his other glaring insufficencies. So much for realism.

Psychological acuity in some of Platform's characters is effective, lively, and occasionally wise. The predatory Robert, the hapless Lionel, the cynical Jean-Yves: all of them speak to social parallels, easily filled in imaginatively by readers who've surely stumbled across close counterparts in their own lives, but they're also given a unique gravity or stamp.

Aside from this character recognition, though, and in addition to the narrative credibilty issue, two other problems emerge.

Houellebecq's story of global sex tourism is simply a hinge on which to enact a supposed extemporization in the mouths of his characters. Three Arabs (and this HAS been mentioned in at least one review I've read) are ushered onto the platform to decry the barbarism of Muslims and of Islam itself, but the reader isn't priveleged with any first-hand dealings with actual Muslims, unless you count the brief mention of three with "turbans" who engender the terrorist atrocities at the resort in Thailand. In a political tract, this would be suspect; in a supposedly imaginative novel it's an unacceptable failing. (I'd be interested to know just how much the timing, the prophecy, with the Bali bombing might have played in giving Platform a media jolt.)

The other failing, and I'm very surprised it's gotten no play, at least amongst the reviews I've seen, is the writing itself. There is, at times, a deadpan, bitter humour in the book: Michel remarks, after ejaculating between the pages of a popular romance thriller that "it's not the kind of book you read twice, anyway". And a few of the beach descriptions capture an imagistic imprint, if not the flavour, of the topography. Also, it must be said, Houellebecq can't be at fault for Frank Wynne's clumsy translation, unless he personally approved it, (though I don't know the quality of Houellebecq's English.) Those caveats aside, there is little else to please this reader, at least, in the overall spread of the writing. Metaphor, arresting image, simile, syntactical quirks, narrative compression (editing), even local phrases of verve and concision, are notable by their needle-in-haystack appearance. The book has been compared to Camus' 1942 L'Etranger, but that classic had real ideas (not journalistic asides), deployed with force and passion, in a style and arrangement thrilling to experience.

It'll be interesting to see how the "shock" of contemporary views stated in Platform play out with the shifting evaluative reception of the novel in ten years, twenty years, or more.


JK said...

Have you read his debut novel? I think its english translation is called 'Whatever', a picture of a cow or something on the's very good, even though it has the same flaw of constant 'journalistic asides' as opposed to 'real ideas' that you touched on here. I really liked it though - and I enjoyed reading this article - mind if I link you?

Brian Palmu said...

Hi, James. Thanks for stopping by.

Yes, I'd read Whatever before Platform, and liked it more than the latter. The structure, such as it is, of Whatever, worked a lot better -- Houellebecq's commentary is perfect for the rambling, unfocussed narrative, and his efforts to construct a plot for Platform was, to me, completely unconvincing. Have you read his other book, the Island one? If so, what is it like?

Took a peek at your blog -- provocative -- and I've linked you. Thanks for doing the same.