Sunday, June 08, 2008

the last book I read

Platform by Michel Houellebecq.

I'll start by offering you a couple of metaphors: firstly, stuffing yourself with sweets and chocolate - you know it's bad for you in the long run, but you can't resist the brief, transient thrill it gives you. Secondly, getting cornered at a party, or perhaps in a railway carriage, by an obviously intelligent and articulate bloke, but one who's perhaps had a couple of sherbets too many and goes ON and ON relentlessly at high volume, possibly getting more animated and grabbing you by the shirt as he gets into his stride. Both of those are appropriate to this book, I think. Here's the first couple of paragraphs:
Father died last year. I don’t subscribe to the theory by which we only become truly adult when our parents die; we never become truly adult.

As I stood before the old man’s coffin, unpleasant thoughts came to me. He had made the most of life, the old bastard; he was a clever cunt. ‘You had kids, you fucker...’ I said spiritedly, ‘you shoved your fat cock in my mother’s cunt.’ Well, I was a bit tense, I have to admit; it’s not every day you have a death in the family.
So you get the idea, I hope. The story continues as follows: the narrator (also called Michel) inherits a considerable sum upon his father's death (it later transpires that he had been having an affair with his Muslim housekeeper and was murdered to avenge her "honour" by her brother), which he uses to go on a holiday to south-east Asia and consort with numerous prostitutes in massage parlours. He also meets a Frenchwoman, Valérie, with whom he begins a relationship back in France. Valérie works for a travel company, and the couple cook up a scheme whereby they offer sex tourism holidays at various locations around the world. In the course of a research trip to Thailand after the launch the couple are caught up in a bombing (in a spooky echo of the real-life Bali bombing of 2002, a year or so after Platform was published) carried out by Muslim terrorists, partly (it is suggested) in retaliation for the exploitation of their country and people by decadent Westerners. Valérie is killed; Michel survives to reflect on the conflict between East and West, between free enterprise and exploitation, and of course between puritanical Islam and sexual freedom.

It was the last of these which caused a certain amount of controversy when the book was originally published, but it's hard now to see what all the fuss is about - although it is of course a characteristic of Islamic fundamentalists to find offence at the tiniest perceived slight. Certainly there is some intemperate talk of rejoicing on hearing the news of Palestinian civilians being gunned down in Gaza, and some flippant asides about buggering camels, but Islam doesn't really come off any worse than European women, men in general, the Germans, pretty much everyone in fact. The only people who seem normal and well-adjusted amid this torrent of vitriolic misanthropy are the Thai prostitutes Michel frequents so enthusiastically.

Other criticisms could be made with a bit more justification, though. Lengthy passages read like the feverish panting fantasies of a 15-year-old: Michel and Valérie's sexual exploits are described with pornographic relish, and their initiation into threesomes happens a little more easily than (I suspect) these things actually happen in real life - a Cuban chambermaid interrupts the couple in mid-foreplay and instead of making an embarrassed retreat, strips off and joins in. Great! The whole thing (see my second metaphor) reads like it was tossed off (so to speak) in one extended rant without much reflection, or indeed editing. Some of the later passages where reckless hedonism collides with violent death read a bit like some of JG Ballard's later novels like Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes, though not nearly as intelligently written. The sheer reckless energy of it all is very bracing, though. To illustrate my first metaphor, though, I read Houellebecq's previous (award-winning) novel Atomised a couple of years back, but I couldn't honestly tell you a thing about it now. It's like literary MSG: delicious, but not very nutritious.

Oh, and a belated note on pronunciation: try "Wellbeck" and you won't be too far off.


Anonymous said...

Hmmm. So to read or not to read, eh?

I read Atomised but, as you say, I cannae remember a damned thing about it other than (I'm pretty sure) I enjoyed it.

Absolutely loved the JG Ballard books which I think I may have to revisit soon.

electrichalibut said...

My only complaint about the later Ballards like Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes (and Millennium People sounds similar, though I haven't read it) is that they seem to be essentially rehashing the same novel several times over. In an entertaining way, though.

You definitely want to read Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition though. Any book that has a chapter entitled Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan is OK with me.