Finally, a book that held me captivated from start to finish. Platform is a darkly amusing, deeply confronting and incredibly timely (published in 2002) novel from the french writer that has divided critics and never been anything if not controversial.
The central protagonist Michael is a civil servant in a French Cultural department, essentially secure but unfulfilled, who we meet just days after his father has been murdered by African gang members in Paris.
Cynically bereft, he sets off on a journey to Thailand where he employs the services of numerous prostitutes between his ‘adventures’ across the country.
There he also meets Valerie, a French travel industry executive assistant, and they exchange numbers before saying their farewells at the end of the journey. They re-unite in Paris and immediately embark on a passionate affair, that takes on fetishistic and S&M dimensions.
Later Michael manages to convince Valerie and her boss Jean-Yves that the way to succeed in their travel business is to openly embrace sex tourism and to promote their business as Aphrodite Tours.
While this appears to be an immediate success, there quickly follows the clash of modernism, free market capitalism, religious extremism and individual nihilism in a climactic finale.
Houellebecq writes with such cutting pathos and cynicism that it is hard to know where the author stands on some of the more controversial subject matter he explores – leading to the change from some quarters that his politics are mercenary and right wing.
For example he seems to give legitimacy to sex tourism and provides justifications that western women have become too demanding of their men, and that the exchange between economic and sexual gratification is a fair one.
Moreover, the author has been accused on inciting religious hatred with his depiction of Islam as ‘stupid’ and the enemy of modernism (the accusation was thrown out of a French courtroom in the name of freedom of speech). Houellebecq later commented that he hated his accusers less than they hated him.
If we accept that a duty of art is to engage with the difficult issues of our times and to stir up the hornets nest of ideological complacency and steer outside the confines of polite convention then Platform achieves this spectacularly.
Reading Houellebecq is never dull or mediocre – like him or loath him he will certainly provoke a reaction and may even force you to confront some of your own 21st century insecurities and post millennium angst.