Platform, by Michel Houellebecq



Platform, by Michel Houellebecq – My friend sent this to me with the highest praises, hinting at its excess, calling it an intriguing read. I read it with great interest and liked it very much from the start. The main character, Michel, is an arrogant French civil servant who is cryptic, intelligent, and more than just a little weird. Unmarried, he’s drifted through life, his father’s been murdered (this tale forms the opening chapter of the book – it was an honor killing, father had been banging a young Algerian girl, and her brother didn’t take too kindly to that situation), he forms no solid attachments, and seems to be somewhat addicted to sex, which he seems to prefer paying for. His character is fascinating in his misanthropistic sarcasm and penetrating criticism, much like the character Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. A good example of this evil voice spews forth against the airline that takes him and his tour group to Thailand, where he aspired to do nothing than to criticize silently his fellow travelers and indulge in endless masseuses:

The crew do their level best to maximize [in-flight] stress by preventing you from combating it by habitual means. Deprived of cigarettes, reading matter and, as happens more and more frequently, sometimes even deprived of alcohol. Thank God the bitches don’t do body searches yet; as an experienced passenger, I had been able to stock up on some necessities for survival: a few 21-mg Nicorette patches, sleeping pills, a flask of Southern Comfort. I fell into a thick sleep as we were flying over the former East Germany.

He contemplates his sleeping neighbor on the flight:

I picked up the paperback which had fallen at his feet: a shitty Anglo-Saxon bestseller by one Frederick Forsyth. I had read something by this halfwit, full of heavy-handed eulogies to Margaret Thatcher and ludicrous depictions of the USSR as the evil empire. I’d wondered how he managed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I leafed through his new opus; apparently, this time, the roles of the bad guys were played by Serb nationalists; here was a man who kept up to date with current affairs. As for his beloved hero, the tedious Jason Monk, he had gone back into service with the CIA, which had formed an alliance of convenience with the Chechen mafia. Well! I thought, replacing the book on my neighbor’s knees, what a charming sense of morality bestselling British authors have.

Houellebecq gives a similar skewering to John Grisham’s The Firm.

The narration gets surreal:

A cockroach approached just as I was about to get into the bath. It was just the right time for a cockroach to make an appearance in my life; couldn’t have been better. It scuttled quickly across the porcelain, the little bugger; I looked around for a slipper, but actually I knew my chances of squashing him were small. What was the point in trying? And what good was [the masseuse] Oon, in spite of her marvelously elastic vagina? We were already doomed. Cockroaches copulate gracelessly, with no apparent pleasure; but they also do it repeatedly, and their genetic mutations are rapid and efficient. There is absolutely nothing we can do about cockroaches.

He also spouts on about the documentaries he’s recently viewed, quiz shows, and behavioral psychology; clearly a man with too much time on his hands – and yes, he’s a really weird guy. “I masturbated gently so I could read in peace, producing just a few drips.” Noting the bombing of the Burmese train bridge recounted in “Bridge Over The River Kwai”, Michel observes that “Things have changed little since then – it is still impossible to get a decent rail conniption between Singapore and Delhi.”

The book meanders along in the cynical misadventures of bourgeois French misfits in Indochina; Michel returns to Paris and takes up a wild sexual relationship with one of the women on his tour and they begin a wild liaison. They fuck and fuck and fuck and fuck and fuck. He is blissful. She is blissful. She works in a travel agency, and so his world becomes a discussion of the world of travel companies, tour organizers, business plans; briefly, the book becomes quite dull. The girlfriend, Valerie, has a boss, and for a while the book seems like it will become more about him then Michel – quel horreur!! But somehow, it shifts back to Michel (his murdered father by now long forgotten). Michel eventually becomes a consultant to this successful travel executive, Jean-Yves (Valerie’s boss; his marriage has soured; so what), and they spend time together in spite of themselves:

Halfway along the path to inebriation, just before mindlessness ensues, one sometimes experiences moments of heightened lucidity. The decline of western sexuality was undoubtedly a major sociological phenomena which it would be futile to attempt to explain by such and such a specific psychological factor; glancing at Jean-Yves, I realized however that he perfectly illustrated my thesis, so much so that it was almost embarrassing. Not only did he not fuck any more and didn’t have the time to go looking, but he no longer really wanted to, and , worse still, he felt decay written on his flesh – he was beginning to smell of the stench of death. “But…” he objected after a long moment of hesitation, “I’ve heard wife-swapping clubs are quite successful.”

Michel’s work as a civil servant continues, and he meets an artist who makes realistic rubber casts of her clitoris. “She was quite sweet, this girl, for a contemporary artist; I almost felt like asking her to come to an orgy some night, I was sure she’d get along well with Valerie.” There’s nothing to it, just another superfluous episode in the life of a man for which sex has become his entire existence, but it’s illustrative anyway.

But, of course, life doesn’t always work out – in novels it probably shouldn’t – and to match Michel’s heaven he’s cast in hell. He doesn’t know how to live life any more and at the end of the book we find him in Krabi, shattered, like Colin Firth’s character Adrian in the film Apartment Zero.

It’s an interesting book, an amusing book, a tragic book, and it has one fascinating character. But it’s also a diluted book, and these fumes are not quite enough to make a good book great.

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