Sunday, January 24, 2016

Fiction review: "Platform" by Michel Houellebecq (2001)

"Where do we go from here?
The words are coming out all weird
Where are you now when I need you
Alone on an airplane
Falling asleep against the window pain
My blood will thicken

I need to wash myself again
To hide all the dirt and pain
'Cause I'd be scared that there's nothing underneath
And who are my real friends
Have they all got the bends
Am I really sinking, this slow"


"I have never shown the slightest contempt for Muslims but I have always held Islam in contempt
Michel Houellebecq

The Radiohead lyrics came to my mind in the wake of my heart-pounding anger in the wake of the appalling recent attacks in Cologne. Of course, although few perpetrators have at present been identified or apprehended, these attacks have in turn stoked increased rejection of "multiculturalism" (a deliberate shorthand for Muslim immigrants in Europe which is a handy tool for some to drive increased political resistance towards most migration). With his new novel imagining a near future where Sharia law becomes a dominant political force in France (just slightly ahead of the National Front), Michel Houllebecq is pushing himself into the centre of the controversy. However, Islam had already come under fire in his previous novel "Platform"-the tale of a civil servant who embarks on a trip of sex tourism shortly after his father is murdered by a young Muslim male. We later encounter characters who rant about the religion, and the novel culminates in a terrorist attack. Houllebecq doesn't help himself when much of the villiany in his novels isn't ostensibly religiously motivated.

Secondary to Houllebecq's beef with Islam, there appears to be a vendetta against feminism (or at least certain feminists). In his late 90's novel "Atomised" one character opined that the problem with most feminists is that they married awful men. In "Platform", one female character is particularly "shrill" on the topic of sex workers, denouncing any participation in sex work as slavery. I'm not sure if "straw feminists" is the right term, as you can find women who hold such views if you want to, although they are hardly representative of a group as diverse as feminists, many of whom hold more nuanced views on sex workers. Of course, I may just be reading too much of the author's views into his characters (it doesn't help when Houllebecq's protagonists generally share his first name), but it seems a bit meh: disses an outgroup for being against women and then disses feminists; so far, so passé. 

But as you keep reading, more and more comes under fire from his withering gaze. One part of the previously-mentioned "Atomised" that made me want to throw the book across the room was a character's description of an orgasm as being one of the most fulfilling moments of his life. There seemed to be the implication that there was little more to his life than trying to pursue sexual pleasure. Again, in "Platform", the protagonist seems to be in the unenviable condition of a general anhedonia that appears only to be alleviated by sexual intercourse, which is detailed in some quasi-pornographic detail throughout the novel. 

Perhaps the real target of Houllebecq's prose is neither Islam, Muslims, feminism or women, but rather a broader malaise within the world at large. The malaise here is as much economical and political as it is sexual or religious-the failure of socialism in the face of human nature, the greater profitability of purely financial work compared to productive work in the real economy, the pervasiveness of violent crime, a post-colonialism so ingrained that people seem quite happy with exploitation (be that via sex work or just plain overwork), even if they are the ones being exploited. Houellebecq has a rare knack for describing complacency and sloth in a manner that is matter-of-fact on the surface, but betrays an underlying anger.

I don't share the lack of purpose or enjoyment of life that Houellebecq portrays. But for all the emptiness of the "Platform's" protagonist, Houellebecq lets us peer into the many of the sordid sides of our world, a fly's eyes view that few individuals will be able to take in within the space of a lifetime. 

Related posts:
Sexism in the academy
Review: "A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing"

No comments:

Post a Comment