Monday, June 1, 2009

67. Platform – Michael Houellebecq

July 2007
History: Published in 2001. The novel has been criticized for its controversial content, including sexual elements some consider to be obscene, such as bisexuality and polyamory, and opinions some consider offensive to Islam. Extracts from the novel, together with an interview Houellebecq accorded the magazine Lire led to charges being brought against him by France's Human Rights League. A panel of three judges, delivering their verdict to a packed Paris courtroom, acquitted Houellebecq of the charges of provoking racial hatred, ascribing Houellebecq's opinions to the legitimate right of criticizing religions.
Plot: The book's protagonist, also named Michel, is a real sweetheart: a self-loathing bureaucrat living a life of near-perfect emptiness. His father, ''a moron in shorts,'' has been brutally murdered as the novel begins. But this seems to interest Michel only insofar as it provides him with an inheritance and enables him to travel. Otherwise, the only aspect of life that animates him is lust. Michel embarks on a package tour to Thailand, carefully noting the unattractiveness of most of his companions. But he is drawn to Valérie, a young woman who works in the travel industry and finds Michel unaccountably tempting. Michel and Valérie become increasingly interested in what they begin to call ''friendly tourism'' -- the kind in which well-heeled Westerners visit third-world countries and pay impoverished new ''friends'' to have sex. The tours will be marketed predominantly to German consumers, as it is perceived that there would be less moral outrage in Germany than in France. Michel, Valerie and her boss Jean-Yves travel to Thailand on one of their company's tours incognito and enjoy an idyllic holiday. They decide that they will move to Thailand permanently, to perpetuate the bliss they experienced there. However, towards the end of their holiday, Muslim extremists commit a terrorist act in which Valerie is killed. Michel is left bereft, and at the end of the novel he travels back to Thailand to die; we realize that the novel is in fact his suicide note.
Review: While ''Platform'' is clearly serious in its horror at such exploitation, it is dangerously ambiguous in other regards. Michel's misanthropy is mingled with a casual racism and a scorn for the Muslim world, not to mention his loathing of anyone he deems physically unattractive. In these regards, it is never clear where Mr. Houellebecq's unalloyed opinions leave off and the presumably artfully imagined ones of his protagonist begin. ''Platform'' would be a better novel if its central character had a life -- any life -- of his own.
Opening Line: “Father died last year.”
Closing Line: “I’ll be forgotten quickly.”
Quotes: ''In the bathroom mirror, I contemplated myself disgustedly. My anxious bureaucratic face clashed horribly with what I was wearing, and I looked exactly like what I was: a forty-something civil servant on vacation, trying to pretend he's young.''
Rating: poor

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