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the complete review - fiction
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- French title Plateforme
- Translated by Frank Wynne
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B+ : an uneven but always interesting novel
See our review for fuller assessment.
|The Atlantic Monthly
|London Rev. of Books
|The LA Times
||Joan Juliet Buck
|The NY Observer
|The NY Times
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|The New Yorker
|San Francisco Chronicle
|Sydney Morning Herald
|The Village Voice
|The Washington Post
|World Lit. Today
No consensus, with almost no one completely enthusiastic
From the Reviews:
- "Houellebecq's work is cynical and anomic but also literary and complex, and its characters contain contradictions." - Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic Monthly
- "It is a novel of ideas, but if that phrase makes you want to reach for your pistol, it also comes with a well-crafted plot, a cast of fully fleshed characters and sex scenes that could stop the traffic. (...) Houellebecq adapts his writing well to the demands of his plot. His style is understated, deadpan and often explanatory, reminiscent of Sartre or Camus. The novel is very funny, but this does not detract from the tension." - Toby Clements, Daily Telegraph
- "Der so zwischen privater Lust- und touristischer Geschäftsstrategie sich entwickelnde Roman mündet in jene skandalträchtige Realitätsabbildung, die Houellebecq geschickt zwischen Provokation, Spekulation und literarischer Masche schillern läßt" - Joseph Hanimann, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "Im Satirischen, vor allem bei der Beschreibung der Thailand-Rundreise im ersten Teil, liegen die Stärken von Plattform. (...) Der Verlag wirbt mit dem Slogan, dies sei der erste Liebesroman Houellebecqs. Das ist vielleicht richtig, nur ist das kein Vorzug, sondern macht das größte Manko des Buchs deutlich." - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "For the smug British reader, Platform will seem nothing so much as a resurrection of the old anti-liberal, anti-semitic, anti-Dreyfusard tradition in French thought and society. Actually, continental liberalism is under assault from two directions. In reality, Michel is indistinguishable from his own bêtes noires, the unassimilated Muslims. His view of European culture -- scary, over-feminised, lonely, demeaning, faithless -- is that of the worst sort of low-grade Muslim propaganda. Whole sections of Platform reminded me of the Saudi newspapers of 20 years ago. Michel is the Muslims' friend." - James Buchan, The Guardian
- "It addresses everything -- love, death, religion, the nature of the individual, the meaning of life -- but is coherent on nothing. (...) But if he is frequently incoherent in his general pronouncements, he is ingenious in his local insights." - Christina Nehring, Harper's
- "Platform impresses mightily with its close-focus attention to the callous business of creating, and exploiting, the desires of all these clapped-out hedonists. (...) More surprisingly, the novel doesn't merely run on irony and rancour. Michel's rat-on-a-wheel Paris routine plangently captures the melancholy of sex-saturated consumer culture, with its victims trapped "like insects in lumps of amber"." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
- "Michel’s glimpse of lifelong happiness becomes a measure of the depths of the misery to which he will soon be violently returned. The novel ends in resignation and despair, but along the way it accommodates a skewed and lyrical vision of romantic longing and fulfillment. Céline would have been shocked -- and perhaps a little jealous." - Geoff Dyer, LA Weekly
- "Houellebecq's earnest wish to idealise sex as a balm for Western ills leads him to make some dodgy narrative moves. (...) It has enough of the curt wit and cruel, aphoristic truth seen in his previous books (...0 to make it worth reading to the end. (...) Platform is a lumpy book." - James Meek, London Review of Books
- "Houellebecq's deadpan description of a France colonized by American products and ideas is the background to what will be Michel's great notion. Like all Houellebecq heroes, Michel only finds relief in sex (.....) The book has been translated into rather polite English, which is a pity. Only the informality of American language could convey the edge that makes Houellebecq's writing so remarkable, and so hilarious, in French." - Joan Juliet Buck, The Los Angeles Times
- "(A) subtler, more daring and more politically explicit work even than Atomised" - Andrew Hussey, New Statesman
- "Platform is certainly full of witty, unhinged attacks against Islam -- characters are introduced for no other reason than to deliver page-length denunciations of true believers. But Muslims ought not to be unduly offended. Houellebecq is a writer of perpetual attack. Protestants, capitalists, liberal-leftists, the revolutionary generation of 1968, the French, les Anglo-Saxons, hippies, Frederick Forsyth -- all these are among his targets. There is considerable comedy in Houellebecq's wild misanthropy. There is also a peculiar poignancy." - Jason Cowley, New Statesman
- "Platform is calculated to poke, prod, engorge, enrage and amuse the complacent reader of today. It’s dangerous in the way that literature is meant to be dangerous -- that is, it awakens neglected sensibilities." - Benjamin Anastas, The New York Observer
- "Platform would be a better novel if its central character had a life -- any life -- of his own. (...) Mr. Houellebecq's chic petulance and abundant salaciousness become part and parcel of his philosophy. This makes for a polarizing, audacious document rather than a viable novel." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times
- "Is it fair to demand of novels that they be articulate and reasonable, that they attempt in some way to make the world a better place ? If so, Platform is a disaster, poorly organized and incoherent and rather crass. (...) If nothing else, Platform makes an imaginative purchase on an undeniably actual strand in turn-of-the-century Europe" - Jenny Turner, The New York Times Book Review
- "((T)he translation, throughout, is exemplary). (...) There are problems with the narrative, officially a first-person account by Michel R., but one that (insolently ?—well, anyway, unjustifiedly) dodges into the third person if it needs to tell us what only Michel H. can know. (There is even an incompetent moment when Michel R. gives us his judgment on a character he hasn’t yet met.) (...) The sense of Houellebecq’s being a clever man who is a less than clever novelist obtrudes most in the novel’s dealings with Islam." - Julian Barnes, The New Yorker
- "Reading Platform, one realises again and again what a flimsy construct the self is, and how provisional is the manner in which we lead our lives. Western individualism teaches us that we are free to remake ourselves in whichever way we chose, that we are masters of our own destiny." - Jason Cowley, The Observer
- "Although the characters in this book endure unimaginable heartbreak along with their happiness, it's sometimes hard to think that they didn't have it coming." - Max Winter, San Francisco Chronicle
- "In its way Plateforme is a novel of ideas, even if these ideas are dubious. It would be tempting to draw a wholly redundant moral from all this; surprisingly, none seems to be available. Readers hoping for a sexual odyssey along the lines of Les Particules élémentaires will be slightly disappointed. This simply proves that like tourists everywhere they will have read the brochure, i.e. the advance publicity, and have signed up for the tour. Booksellers report a brisk turnover." - Anita Brookner, The Spectator
- "For all his faults he pulls you along by his audacity and his verve. There is something new and rare here, a genuinely unsettling wit with a terrible tang of truth. His critics will see him as a reactionary populist, a kind of literary Eminem, but he is much better than that." - George Walden, Sunday Telegraph
- "(A)s shocking as its predecessor, if not more so, and just as compelling and stomach-churning. (...) And behind all the contempt, the obsessively detailed but cold-as-ice descriptions of the most amazing sexual acrobatics, there lingers a yearning for older, discredited values of love and generosity, and for a way of life that could even be described as spiritual." - Andrew Riemer, Sydney Morning Herald
- "The book is classic, gamy Houellebecq: witty, indigestible, willfully repellent and fiercely enjoyable. (...) Houellebecq has a gift for sleepy invective; he has contempt for both freedom and authority. But he's like a bad date -- brimming with rank charm but few useful judgments." - Richard Lacayo, Time
- "This is the kind of plotting that has led many English critics, seduced by Houellebecq's "honesty", to hail him as a "novelist of ideas". But Platform does not contain an "idea" to keep a mayfly awake at night, and Houellebecq is no more a novelist of ideas than Benny Hill. (...) At best, Platform might reinforce Michel Houellebecq's position as the talismanic idiot-savant of the emasculated literary right. But he is an idiot-savant who does not savoir anything." - Giles Coren, The Times
- "Houellebecq is as sharp as ever in his dissection of social groups (.....) Plateforme doesn't have the impact of Les Particules elementaires, whose originality and emotional force make it a landmark in French fiction. Houellebecq's view of society, French society in particular, remains bleak (there is an alarming description of one of Paris's satellite towns)." - Adrian Tahourdin, Times Literary Supplement
- "What begins as a portrait of a dulled and clotted imagination is quickly flattened by a narrative schematism that, in its hectic effort to globalize Michel's malaise, undoes the comic force of the novel's early chapters. (...) As with Atomised, Houellebecq has been ill-served by his translator (or editors); the text is peppered with infelicities." - Brian Dillon, Times Literary Supplement
- "What's at stake is the desacralizing of sex, its final leap into the realm of pure commodity, the role of implacable consumption in cultural imperialism, and whether it's the characters who are bored by these worthy concerns, or the novel, or just us." - Joshua Clover, The Village Voice
- "But what seems to hit the panic button, at least in America, is that Houellebecq has a genius at making you think he is on your side, that the two of you basically agree about the world and its iniquities, about what will help make things better. And then suddenly you wake up drunk, naked and committed to some repellent political notion, wondering how he got you there. Platform does this to you again and again" - Gavin McNett, The Washington Post
- "Hatte Houellebecq in den vorausgegangenen Romanen noch ab und an stilistische Brillanz gezeigt, eine Brillanz der Kälte wohlgemerkt, die an den Dandy-Duktus eines Drieu und Montherlant anzuknüpfen versuchte, Autoren also, welche die Analyse menschlicher Antriebe mit der skeptischen Schonungslosigkeit sprachlicher Puristen betrieben, so sinkt die Schnörkellosigkeit mittlerweile in die pure Banalität herab und fördert in Plattform Stammtischsätze zu Tage" - Tilman Krause, Die Welt
- "Despite Houellebecq's straightforward, almost breezy style, the problems he tackles are hardly simple or trivial. Less controversial issues may appear in the narrative, as when he discusses the state of the art world or the dangers of unfettered materialism. He proves to be especially adept at using dialogue to approach touchier issues such as corporate misconduct, sexual tourism, or Islamic fundamentalism." - Steven Daniell, World Literature Today
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Platform begins with a murder.
The narrator, Michel, begins his tale with the death of his father -- killed, it turns out, by the brother of the young woman who cleaned his father's house (and who was having a sexual relationship with him).
The event is described in a manner making it appear almost banal, a stupid and unconvincing clash of cultures and expectations leading only to a senseless death -- albeit one that hardly touches anyone (Michel, who wasn't that close to his father, is hardly perturbed, and even at a recreation of the crime can't work himself up into anything approaching a vengeful fury).
Michel expects society and justice to deal with the matter in a similarly cursory manner: "His defense was lucid and credible, he would probably come across well in front of a jury -- a two- or three-year suspended sentence, no more."
(Aïcha, the student who cleaned the house and was at the root of the deadly dispute, is the harshest in her judgement, having no respect for her pseudo-Islamic brothers: "They get blind drunk on pastis and all the while they strut around pretending to be the guardians of the one true faith, and they treat me like a slut because I prefer to go out and work rather than marry some stupid bastard like them.")
Anomie pervades the book, especially in the opening scenes.
Michel is a lackluster forty year-old man, without family or real friends.
He is a bureaucrat, working in the Ministry of Culture -- showing how even culture has become bureaucratized, and if not entirely crushed by state influence and controls, so at least rendered largely harmless.
Michel states early on: "My conclusion, henceforth, is that art cannot change lives. At least not mine."
(It should be noted, however, that Michel writes all this in the future, looking back after the events have unfolded: there likely was a point when he still believed in some transformative power for art.)
It is not merely culture that disappoints, however: all of society seems on the verge of becoming rundown, aimless, degenerate.
The "placid socialism" of this France insures a certain standard of living but is clearly fraying at the edges.
Michel is an odd but in some ways representative cog in this machinery: comfortably ensconced in a government job (which he performs competently, if unexceptionally), but with little ambition and no particular desires (as a consumer or otherwise) that aren't easily satisfied.
After work Michel usually takes in a peepshow -- almost all the personal human contact and sex he needs.
He does wonder: "Why had I never shown any real passion in my life in general ?" but the world he lives in seems to allow for (or even encourage) such a dispassionate lethargy.
After the death of his father Michel does decide to get away for a few days over Christmas (since he obviously has no one he would care to spend it with), and while he simply does head to the airport without ticket or even destination, he does opt for the predictable comforts and arrangements of a package tour ("Thai Tropic" 15 days/ 13 nights).
Thailand offers something of a contrast, but also specifically allows for greater amplification of the what's-wrong-with-modern-Western-civilization themes, as Michel describes his fellow travellers and their reactions to these foreign circumstances.
Sex -- and sex-tourism, which Michel freely indulges in -- also play a role.
Sex is a central problem in the West, as Michel sees it, an issue Westerners can't properly deal with any longer:
Try as they might, they no longer feel sex as something natural.
Not only are they ashamed of their own bodies, which aren't up to porn standards, but for the same reason they no longer feel attracted to the body of the other.
One of the fellow travellers on the Thai tour is Valérie.
She appeals to Michel, but they only really connect once they are back in France -- and, somewhat surprisingly, become a couple
They have a sex-filled and generally satisfying relationship: cocky Michel likes to stock up on the Viagra, just in case, but he's generally ready to please or be pleased at a moment's notice, and Valérie makes his perfect complement in that regard.
(The sex aspect of the novel, where Michel almost never seems to run into any sort of difficulties, is the most unrealistic part of the novel -- much of it comes across as onanistic fantasy rather than true to life.)
Valérie works for the travel company that organised the Thai trip, but she soon joins her immediate superior in switching to another such travel agency, the Aurore group, where they will work on "the Eldorador project", a holiday club like Club Med.
It is Michel that comes up with the idea that can set Eldorador apart from its competition: organised sex tourism.
Instead of organizing sightseeing, adventure, or sports to keep club visitors busy these would offer convenient sex at standardized rates.
"Eldorador Aphrodite: Because pleasure is right" becomes the marketing line.
It sounds like it will be a grand success: costs actually are lower than for other clubs, and while the moralistic French (!) probably aren't the ideal target audience, Germans and others book the first such tours enthusiastically and to near-capacity.
Michel and Valérie go to the opening of the Thai club -- but things don't turn out quite as hoped.
Paradise is defiled (and yes, the Muslims are to blame again), and Michel's brief period of happiness comes to an end.
Curiously, then, the book ends with him choosing a Thai exile, reinforcing his isolation, a double-reminder now of civilizations lost.
Platform is an odd book.
Narrator Michel is not a sympathetic character, but his honesty, candour, and bluntness do make him appealing.
His odd fixations -- not only sexual -- are particularly effectively presented, whether his devotion to certain TV shows or his reading material (he goes on at considerable length about John Grisham's The Firm -- a book he eventually buries in the sand along with David Baldacci's Total Control).
Michel has a great deal of contempt for the world and people around him, but he does not set himself apart or claim to be any better: he know that he too is one of them (with slightly different priorities and interests, but still very much a part of contemporary consumerist French society).
Also effective is the absence of outrage: the book is full of outrageous occurrences, from his father's murder to a brutal attack and rape, and he describes whole neighbourhoods that one almost can't safely step into at all, but he relates all this very matter-of-factly.
Even the horrific events in Thailand can't shake him into becoming a man of action (or even just of outrage).
Michel seems to thrive only in his insignificance: "I will have been a mediocre individual in every sense possible", he sums up.
He also believes he will be forgotten, quickly (perhaps as he imagines a Western civilization grown complacent will soon be forgotten) -- but interestingly he does offer this testament of sorts, a summing-up, a "putting the elements of my life in order", this book that describes this year or so of his life.
Early in his account he wrote: "My conclusion, henceforth, is that art cannot change lives. At least not mine", but it seems that was not a foregone conclusion, that it was something he had to try -- a possible out.
But books were less escape for him than safe harbours: "Not having anything around to read is dangerous: you have to content yourself with life itself, and that can lead you to take risks."
It is risks -- real risks -- that he and his fellow Westerners seem too often unwilling to take; it is something he understands, but also something that he can't change even just about himself.
Fostering and organizing sex tourism was at least an attempt to embrace lost freedoms, but even that fails.
Platform moves along quite well.
Houellebecq is good with the incidental events and characters -- co-workers, Valérie's colleague's marital diffuclties, French TV, politics, and culture, and much more.
The story is a bit unevenly paced, and occasionally he seems to lash out without bothering to create an adequate foundation within the story; the anti-Muslim bits, in particular, aren't as coherently presented as one might wish (though Michel's indifference to their motives or the details of their lives and religion is, perhaps, realistic).
Overall, it is a good and generally entertaining read -- and, despite Michel's complacency, surprisingly vivid throughout.
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Other books by Michel Houellebecq under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- Julian Barnes' different touristic fantasy, England, England
- See also the Index of French literature at the complete review
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About the Author:
French author Michel Houellebecq was born in 1958.
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© 2003-2012 the complete review
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