4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars
Soon to be a Major Motion Picture, 6 Aug 2002
A review of Platform by Michel Houellebecq
A good yarn? On the whole, yes. An interesting polemic? Yes. But is it literature? I'm not so sure. This novel is peopled with stereotypes and fantasies - with the sole exception of the first-person narrator. A nihilistic but sex-obsessed loner when the novel starts, he describes a barren life full of trite rituals. He hasn't much respect for his job in the Ministry of Culture: toward the end he says that culture in the Western world is a necessary sop to make the meaninglessness of modern life bearable (so we can slough it off when we escape to Thailand. True, if culture is confused with TV games). The rougher suburbs of Paris are presented in bleak images of crime, devastation and fear, but the narrator dismisses the idea of trying to improve them and certainly asks no questions about how they got to be like that. Throughout, he complains about the absence of love in the West. His girlfriend - who is, of course, much younger, beautiful, sexually adventurous and, just to be 'modern', very successful in her chosen field - is presented as a rare exception. She alone, apparently, among Westerm womankind is a "giving" person. It never occurs to him to do any giving. As for the sex scenes, they reminded me of George Steiner's observation, in Night Words, I believe, to the effect that to describe sex is to make it trite. Houellebecq's sex scenes, even the 'love' scenes, all read like a rather unappealing man's fantasies (the greatest of which is that, just when the couple settles down and the spectre of domesticity looms, fate intervenes...whew, close call.)
The author tries to bring the business world into the novel. An admirable idea, but he fails utterly; the relevant passages read like company histories lifted from magazines (is the author making fun of himself with the sociologist character?). Ditto for office life. Not enough is made of the workaholic executive: we hear much about his problems with his wife, but not enough on the effects of corporate power on his character - an equally interesting subject, to my mind, and one more relevant to a critique of modern society. The narrator wonders what makes him tick, but blithely dismisses him by concluding that 'Jean-Yves works because he likes working'.
There has been much controversy over Houellebecq's portrayal of Islam. I'm not sure what Islam is doing in this book - one more illustration of globalisation gone awry (alongside the cultural confusion of immigrants and the atrocious tourist industry)? Frankly, the final section reads like a novelist's way to get into the talk shows and best-seller lists - and, even less forgivably, to end the story in a movie-friendly way.
The one solid thing about this novel is the narrator - an accurate depiction of the Westerner who only wants his/her ego stroked, and passes equally facile judgements on West and East alike. This "protagonist" is a person to whom things happen, who refuses to take any responsibility for his world. Herein, perhaps, lies the reason for the great popularity of this book.