Sunday, November 30, 2003

Platform: Ideas Above Its Station?Houellebecq To Mine

Recently finished reading Michel Houellebecq's Platform which is a late contender for book of the year. The narrator is a dissatisfied middle-aged French civil servant whose holiday experiences in Thailand help reawaken his joy for life and give him the idea for a successful business venture he shares with his bisexual lover Valerie and her sensible careerist boss. As ever with Houellebecq though, the plot is just a mere device on which to pin his droll observations; faux-academic analysis of human behaviour and increasingly graphic sexual encounters.

What sets Houellebecq apart from most of his peers is his ability to fearlessly cover topical, and indeed controversial, issues while remaining insistent on placing these matters within a rational historical perspective. The book has courted controversy with its treatment of sexual tourism and the emergence of militant Islamic factions but I don't consider it a racist book per se as these references are consistent with the framework of the book and the endemic xenophobia of the narrator, where no race, creed, nation or faction is spared. Houellebecq assumes his reader has sufficient sophistication to discern between the narrator and the overall authorial voice, but the media furore perhaps suggests otherwise.

With Platform he shows the ability to follow his various trains of thought to their (logical) final destination. So as the civil servant and voluptuous Valerie lose themselves in their increasingly dizzy episodes of sucking, fucking and licking local prostitutes and fellow holidaygoers, the sudden, swift and terrible denouement that awaits them is as satisfyingly inevitable as it is shocking and dreadful. The comparisons to Camus are, for once, well deserved and Platform is a piece of work that deserves its place on the pedestal.

Also published in Britain for the first time this year is Lanzarote which Houellebecq wrote as far back as 2000, but does sit quite well as a companion piece to Platform as it is very thematically similar. At little over 80 pages long it's a short story masquerading as a novella, and some have baulked at the asking price of a tenner. But this is like protesting at the price of dessert in a fancy restaurant, and if you enjoyed reading Platform then this book will feel like an exquisite after-eight mint you'll tell yourself you deserve.

Lanzarote is of course a popular holiday destination for the British, and Houellebecq wastes no opportunity to aim some witheringly accurate potshots at the English abroad. But for the French, the Canary Island, with its volcanic landscapes, has an alien, 'martian' feel, captured by some of the glossy photographs included herein, giving the book a travelogue-style appearance. A travelogue with a dark erotic twist, of course, as the book's narrator enjoys a menage-a-trois with two German lesbians under the sullen gaze of a traumatised Belgian cop who falls in with a bizarre alien-loving cult with predictably sleazy and ill-fated results. This time, Houellebecq keeps the more academic analysis of events to a minimum, resulting in a diverting vignette which is arguably his most accessible work to date.


Post a Comment

<< Home