by Michel Houellebecq
ISBN: 0375414622

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A Review of: Platform
by David Solway

Michel Houellebecq's (pronounced Wellbeck, aspirated) Platform has been reviewed and discussed so often by now that it is scarcely necessary to recapitulate the plot of this complex and troubling novel. Suffice it to say that the various penses and adventures of its feckless protagonist, the sexual escapades in which he at times vicariously and at times ravenously participates, his eventual discovery of an unlikely love and compatibility-in-unfaithfulness, the terrorist violence in which it comes to pieces, and the squalid denouement of a largely misspent life provide us with a vivid portrait of contemporary mores as repellant as it is convincing.
When they are not merely rehashing the story, the prelatical turn adopted by many if not most reviewers of Platform, inflected by an almost clinical attitude toward a presumed set of noxious convictions associated with the author, prompts the inevitable question. Can this commentariat of the enlightened, this clamp of percale volus intent on merdifying both the author and his book, all be wrong? "Michel Houellebecq is an ugly writer, vulgar, silly, sex obsessed. His heroes are unprepossessing lonersand generally, egotistically, they are named Michel" is how Jenny Turner begins her New York Times review. Variants of her condemnation are ubiquitous. "The characters in Platform are detestable," Max Winters piously intones in the San Francisco Chronicle. The Independent's Boyd Tonkin wonders if "Sooner or later, will we all be bored stiff by the internet homilies of Cardinal Houellebecq?" For Janet Maslin, reprinted in the International Herald Tribune, "the plot development [is] far too sentimental for the book's overriding contempt" and is "dangerously ambiguous" in its "casual racism andscorn for the Muslim world." Similarly, Alex Levebvre, representing the French socialist outlook on the ICFI website, excoriates Houellebecq for "glorify[ing] the most depraved feelings" and goes on to lament "anti-Muslim racism or hysteria over security' issues." Julian Barnes writing in the New Yorker, albeit with approximate respect, has nevertheless pointed out that the novel is somewhat flawed in structure and consistency of tone, the narrative "unevenly paced" and the bouts of invective inadequately founded. And so it goes. The overall critical perspective on the book gives new meaning to the term "et cetera."
There are welcome exceptions to this pervasive strain of opprobrium, like Charles Taylor's brilliant assessment in the Boston Review and Salman Rushdie's advocacy in the Guardian Review, but they are few and far between. Is there little, then, that redeems this work apart from its weird, exotic flavour and the admittedly bracing if disturbing candour of its author? Are we dealing with another Cline whose racist musings and habitual spite must ultimately estrange the reader or with the depressive world-view of a novel-writing Cioran giving us yet another short history of decay? Or, on the contrary, are we confronting something quite different, a rigorous and unsentimental analysis of our time, laying out the age in cross-section?
Despite the running spate of objections, there can be little doubt that the book develops enormous torque and staying power in its pursuit of what it proposes as an important truth. Houellebecq's books work less through strict verisimilitude than in the mode of fable or parable, one story contained within or evincing another. Houellebecq, after all, is a poet and a very fine one, plying the customary techniques of allusion and anagoge, whose oeuvre is haunted by the ghost of Baudelaire, in particular, Le Spleen de Paris. (Michel at one point quotes pertinently from the poet.) The difference is that Baudelaire's Parisian microcosm morphs into Houellebecq's international macrocosm. But there is an epic component as well to his analogical structures. In some ways, Platform is like an ironic rewrite of The Pilgrim's Progress From This World To That Which Is To Come; in others, like a tourist excursion through the Inferno. Most significantly, the personal account of the novel's anti-hero encloses within it the faltering and, indeed, suicidal trajectory of a social world fast approaching terminal break-up. Michel's investments of emotion (such as they are), the damaging choices he tends to make, his subliminal inconsistencies, his gainful lassitude and his predictable losses are also ours, irrespective of how numbed, unloveable and alien he may strike the reader. What Houellebecq is giving us in the peregrinations of this cynical voluptuary through the circles of his private world is a kind of modern allegory, a public disclosure of the intrinsic meaning of events as "[h]umanity in all its different formscreep[s] into the third millennium"-the story really gets under way on New Year's Day, 2001. As Dante explained: literra gesta docet, quid credas, allegoria (the literal sense teaches the fact, the allegory what you should believe).
For Michel is an emblematic figure. True, he is neither what Houellebecq, in his previous novel The Elementary Particles, calls a precursor nor is he a prophet, the two more advanced (though not necessarily amicable) classes of human being, but a partial symptomatic, that is, one whose drab iconicity says less about himself than about the society which he models and evokes. I specify "partial" because Michel is neither happy-except briefly-nor determined to be a part of history, subfeatures, according to the author, of the category of the symptomatic. Thus we might define him as a catoptric, one who in his rooted habits and behaviours reflects the world of which he is a disaffected part. The differences we may detect between Michel and ourselves are only cosmetic. Michel is an accurate and unflattering mirror. Additionally, many of his observations about the social and political dynamics of our world, unpalatable as they may be to us, are absolutely spot on. (For example, his hilarious send-up of the contemporary "notion of rights" and its abuses, a question examined at length and rather more drily by Michael Ignatieff in The Rights Revolution.) And this is why Michel is someone with whom the reader must come to terms.

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