A very determined novel in the way of being a bestseller: La Plateforme

Michel Houellebecq is one of the prominent writers of contemporary French literature. With his Les Particules élémentaires he won Prix Novembre in 1998, International Dublin Literary Award in 2002, and Prix Goncourt, a distinguished award of French literature, in 2010 with his La Carte et le territoire. His novels were translated into several languages. We wouldn’t exaggerate if we say that he has a worldwide recognition. Maybe because of extreme sex scenes in his novels or of his sometimes too provocative political incorrectness, or of plagiarism discussions around him, he is an author who somehow manages being at the top of the agenda. While some critics see this as a stylistic choice of Houellebecq, some of them judge it as a reflection of his misogyny and discomfort of immigrants, if not racism.

I had read the Turkish translation of his La Carte et le territoire (Harita ve Topraklar). It had seemed to me that it is quite original, and I still think the same. Recently I read his La Plateforme, and I should admit that I disappointed after La carte et le territoire. I don’t have any intention to compare these two stylistically and thematically different novels, but I can easily label La Plateforme banal and unoriginal on the contrary La Carte et le territoire.

Firstly, Michel Houellebecq’s La Plateforme is a kind of novel written with the intention of being a bestseller book: almost pornographic, but always clichés sex scenes, dark, mysterious protagonist, and a touchy love story. It has huge generalizations over East and West, situation of immigrants or middle classes in France. As a ‘middle-class’ novel, which is very legitimate, it aims to reflect certain points of views of middle classes in France towards vanity of life, struggle for earning money, absurdity, but at the same time necessity of capitalism, etc. While doing this Houelbecq progresses such a speed that he cannot even find time to develop his characters elaborately. At the end of the novel I see nothing but the very personal position of the author.

After this introduction, we can look at the novel in more detail. From now on, the post may include little bit spoiler. The protagonist (Michel) whom we never know his entire story unlike some other characters is mid-thirties, works for the Ministry of Culture, lives alone, and he is neither happy nor unhappy. One day he learns that his father has been killed. Even though he is not so sorry[1], he feels emptiness in his life, and decides to take a vacation. During his vacation, in his residual time from sex sessions with ‘young’ Thai girls, he warms towards a beautiful French girl (Valérie) who is at the end of her twenties. After they returned to Paris, they begin to live together. In fact Valérie works for a tourism agency, and is closely acquainted with the world of tourism. Together they enjoy, travel, and discover sexuality. By the way, with the collaboration of Valérie’s chief (Jean-Yves) they implement sex tourism in third world countries such as Thailand or Cuba. In this flow, we basically read Michel’s observations and ideas about West and others (Asians, Americans, and Muslims), sexuality, marriage, immigrants, and other issues such as meaning(less) of life. On the other hand, we never see any character in different situations, neither their positioning in their own contexts; except that we read some excerpts from Valérie and the Jean-Yves’s lives, but they follow only a linear path, and they serve nothing but to enforce author’s position on certain issues that are already mentioned. Until now, the points on which I touched are related to weakness of the plot. As I said, throughout the story, we are trapped with the personal judgments of the author as a French, male, heterosexual persona, and having right to have a free hand on whatever issue and whatever national, ethnic, religious group without characterizing and putting them into diverse contexts by referring to complicated, mostly ambiguous strata of modern social life.

I don’t want to discuss Houellebecq’s arguments in the book in detail on immigrants, capitalism, or sexuality. But I can say that I found them quite akin to French Christian Democrats, and having some resonances with lepenian arguments. Houellebecq is probably aware of that, and he tries to surpass this “troublesome” situation by implementing an immigrant character having a different position than ‘terrorist groups’, dubbing a more or less modernist position, but with full of anger and hatred of religion and terrorism. But I think that the issue of immigration, or of terrorism in general is not such a simple issue, jammed into a simple dichotomy: on the one side Islamic barbarians, and on the other side docile subjects following his/her reason in spite of his/her ‘dauby’ origin. I see the same reductionist position on sexuality as well. If sex scenes wouldn’t be baroque ornaments of the narrative, then one should forge such situations that we feel, perceive, if not understand, complicated nature of sexuality, which does not occur simply between two sexes as Proust put it[2]. And I should remark that I don’t see the capitalism as the end of history (yes, I think Houellebecq is very near to that position, and he has a certain pessimist tone on that matter), and especially in a novel I expect to see its non-tangible, imperceptible aspects that are not revealed by economy or any other social science. The life we live in is always sophisticated and it will be so: “The world is immense and passably complicated; frankly speaking, it is not always very explicable”[3]. I agree with Fernand Braudel, and I privilege literature a bit on that point, to penetrate into the complexity of world and of human spirit.

 

Maybe too many words for a book that I disliked. But I think all these points that I criticized in Plateforme can more or less be generalized on almost every bestseller book: reductionism, abundant sex scenes, a slightly pessimist character, an ‘everything’s fine’ love story, etc. I wouldn’t have seen the writer of Les particules élémentaire and La carte et le territoire in that category. La Plateforme is Houellebecq’s third novel, and he wrote later La possibilité d’une île (2005) and La carte et le territoire (2010). I didn’t read La possibilité d’une île, but La Platforme didn’t give me a good impression. I hope Houellebecq deals with his prosaic rotes and achieve to be a writer taking risk of not being sold a lot.

 

 

[1] One of the recurrent themes of Houellebecq with La Carte et le territoire, loss of and reckoning with father. In this novel, he doesn’t develop this more.

[2]Actually there are some female to female sexual relationships in the novel. But it is clear that they have a function to enliven the narrative, besides, from purely a male perspective.

[3] Braudel, F. (1997). Les Ambitions de l’histoire, (p. 16). Editions de Fallois. “[…] Le monde est vaste et passablement compliqué et, qu’à parler franc, il n’est pas toujours très explicable”. (I translated).

 

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