"Platform" by Michel Houellebecq. Translated by Frank Wynne. Alfred Knopf, 2003
Michel Houellebecq's hit novel the Elementary Particles was a great book -- but as I said in my review (eXile #154), it came close to being a great failure, with some amateurish narrative wobbles that made reading it feel like riding beside a student driver in a tanker truck full of napalm.
The eXile was also getting reports from a reliable French source that Houellebecq was a phony, entirely the creation of his publisher. The wildly uneven quality of Elementary Particles made that rumor seem plausible. I dreaded the appearance of Houellebecq's next novel, and would have placed a sizable bet that it would be a disaster.
I'd've lost that bet. Platform, Houellebecq's new novel, is in some ways better than Elementary Particles. It's a smaller book, without the science-fiction frame or ambition of EP, but a much more perfect, controlled performance. It reads like the work of a talented fiction-writer, rather than the translation to narrative of a brilliant aphorist's work.
That's not to say that Platform is short on brilliant passing shots at a host of deserving contemporary cliches. In fact, it lays waste to a wide swath of pious cant, and does so without losing narrative momentum. In the process, Houellebecq makes you realize how tame, how cautious, provincial and anti-intellectual most English-language novelists are. He talks about everything from the economics of the tourism industry to the rival theories of consumer behavior with an easy confidence and healthy lack of respect. And he says wonderfully true and forbidden on almost every page. You read these tangential slashes at contemporary piety with the sudden ache of an unrealized hunger satisfied.
Every time Houellebecq spotlights a piece of ordinary contemporary culture, it's a delight. His limpid appreciations of small contemporary pleasures are as satisfying as his attacks. "Windows started up with a cheerful little sound," he says, and it's like hearing that sound for the first time.
Perhaps a French writer is best placed to describe the slighted detail of contemporary life in the developed countries, writing from a country wealthy and confident enough to buy each new product, but consuming it with a residue of resentment, keeping up slightly grudgingly with the avalanche of novelties from its rival culture.
God knows somebody needs to resent this crap. And Houellebecq does a great job of it, as in this account of a suspense novel the protagonist borrows from a sleeping neighbor on a long flight:
"I picked up the paperback that had fallen at his feet: a shitty Anglo-Saxon bestseller by one Frederick Forsythe. I had read something by this halfwit that was 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 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 best-selling British authors have."
This isn't the digression it seems. The argument of Houellebecq's novel is that the West has gone insane, embracing its enemies and persecuting its own.