The Book Club

Lose Yourself in the Platform


Your main reproach of my position is that I’m trying to find some irony, or at least nuance, underlying Houellebecq’s Thai sex paradise. Perhaps this is in fact an error on my part—perhaps this man believes unreservedly in the virtue of the whole enterprise, and in the authenticity of his hero’s sexual derring-do. In that case my misreading is surely due to an impulse to salvage this novel from its own excesses, many of which we’ve already documented. Some passages in Platform are simply too preposterous to interpret as sincere, and too dreadful to accept as the work of a writer who (we both agree) is in some sense a significant one.

You mention the suspiciously perfect Valérie in this respect. What a woman! Michel’s endless praise of her seems to give the lie to Eminem’s theory that there’s no such thing as “a woman with good looks who cooks and cleans.” (Houellebecq’s version would be “a woman with perfect breasts who wakes you up every morning with a blowjob.”) This, too, reminds me of Céline. Mollyin Journey to the End of the Night and Nora in Death on the Installment Plan are also conspicuously idealized women in a sea of enmity and wretchedness. There’s clearly something in this: Sometimes the most misanthropic writers, even those accused of misogyny in particular, insist on keeping a female figure involved in the action but somehow above the fray of the vanity of human wishes.

But don’t we have to recognize that Houellebecq knows that none of this is sustainable? Valérie, like sex tourism, is neither a symptom nor a cure. At best they’re both distractions. It might be willful misreading on my part to claim that Platform casts a skeptical eye on the endless parade of threesomes, wife-swap bars, and naughty sex acts on the beach. But I suspect that Houellebecq is up to something more patient, that he’s trying to lull us into the trance of this parade, only to explode our illusions at the end much as he does Michel’s. This is a difficult position to defend on a case-by-case basis in the novel, since each particular encounter reads like a self-contained bit of sentimentalized pornography. But in Platform, even more than in The Elementary Particles, this all seems to be building in a particular direction.

This direction is—strangely for Houellebecq—something that he repeatedly calls love. It’s true, as you note, that he makes intermittent allusions to our inability to love anymore. But the plot of Platform essentially traces two things: the hatching of a plan to make a fortune in sex tourism, and Michel’s increasing love for a woman whom he admired at first only for her breasts. This may strain our sense of the novel’s believability, but ultimately what I’m suggesting is that believability is not the best criterion for judging Platform. You were right, in your opening e-mail yesterday, to criticize Julian Barnes’ review of the novel in The New Yorker, which placed too much emphasis on verisimilitude. Houellebecq is not a craftsman in that sense, you said, but a sociologist. I agree. But in your e-mail today you seem to make a critique similar to Barnes’; and you censure Houellebecq for the actions of two characters (Michel and Valérie) who are ultimately not believable enough.

I know that I’m distorting the idea of verisimilitude, that the precision of detail in the description of a threesome in a hammam is hardly as important as the plausibility of character and characterization. But if we are to praise Houellebecq for his sociology even at the expense of the novelistic—which I don’t, by the way, necessarily think we should do—I’d argue that we have to be prepared to indulge him even these enormous flaws if they’re going to lead us to his grand sociological ends. In some sense Platform is intriguing precisely because it’s often so ridiculous. The story is a series of events—what in Extension du domaine de la lutte, trying to define his idea of the novel, Houellebecq calls “a succession of anecdotes”—that builds and builds, straining plausibility all along, until at last it detonates, leaving only body parts and debris.

What is this grand sociology, anyway? There’s a revealing moment in the novel, just before the now-notorious hammam scene, when Michel and Valérie are on the train to Dinard and he’s reading the financial section of Le Figaro. “For some years,” Michel explains, “I had nurtured the theory that it was possible to decode the world, to understand its evolution, by setting aside everything dealing with current affairs, politics, the society pages, the arts; that it was possible to form an accurate image of the thrust of history purely by reading the financial news and the stock prices.” When we talk about sociology in Platform, we’re largely talking about economics; this is the novel’s master theory, its response to the science of The Elementary Particles. It’s economics that connects sex and tourism and Islam (which, you’re right, we should discuss tomorrow) and all the other things in the book.

Thus in the passage that gives the book its title, Michel describes the euphoric moment of devising a plan for global sex tourism, what a few pages later he’ll call “the professional equivalent of an orgasm”: “In a state of excitement that seemed slightly unreal, we set down our manifesto, our platform for dividing up the world.” Houellebecq believes more in the platform than in the characters who ostensibly concoct it. I’d maintain that this was no less the case in The Elementary Particles, and that this limits Houellebecq as a novelist as much as it sustains him as a writer of livid prose. I admire Platform a lot, but in the final equation I don’t think I love it all that much more than you do. I just think I liked The Elementary Particles considerably less.