I read Michel Houellebecq's Extension du domaine de la lutte (bizarrely translated as Whatever) some years ago, and recently re-read Les Particules élémentaires and still couldn't really see what all the fuss is over the writer. After reading Plateforme, though, I'm starting to come round.
Houellebecq of course triumphed in 2010 (in spite of Tahar Ben Jelloun's great animosity) by winning the Goncourt with La Carte et le territoire. A number of French writers and critics call him a 'great' writer; Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, 'secrétaire perpétual' of the Académie française, expressed her support for Houellebecq as a future member; and Frédéric Beigbeder claims that he is France's greatest living writer by far – Houellebecq, that is, not himself!
Some journalists have noticed that Houellebecq appears to have aged about twenty years since his Goncourt victory, although to my knowledge no one has suggested why this is. Certainly if his new book Soumission – whose publication was completely submerged by the Charlie hebdo tragedy on the same day – is anything to go by he hasn't lost his love of controversy.
But to return to the subject, as I'm saving the reading of Soumission until I've read a few more of the earlier books: this is definitely the best Houellebecq novel I've read so far. And another brief mention of Beigbeder – who in 2011 rated this as Houellebecq's best book – he also rates it as the eighth best book published in the last hundred years. (Beigbeder also mentions a great number of other things in Premier bilan après l'apocalypse, some of which are eccentrically idiosyncratic, so we'll move on.)
As Camus's L'Étranger begins with the protagonist Meursault's mother's death, so Plateforme begins with a sentence about protagonist Michel's father's death a year earlier. And like Meursault, Michel is something of a nihilist: as is Houellebecq? Well, Michel is a character in a book, so let's not jump to hasty conclusions.
The novel is easy to sum up: reasonably comfortable single civil servant (in the culture sector) goes on holiday to Thailand, enjoys the sex on offer, then returns and immediately forms the relationship of his life with Valérie, who was also a single on the same holiday but whom he largely avoided. Coincidentally, Valérie works in the tourist industry but earns much more than Michel: she's a go-getter and climbs the capitalist tree very rapidly. Then Michel – who really isn't into capitalism – suggests that her very slightly underachieving firm branches out into sex tourism, which it does, and with great success. But by then Valérie has fallen in love with Thailand as well as with Michel, and she's prepared to take a huge drop in salary to work for the company there, continuing to live with Michel. But then terrorists strike, killing over 200 people, one of whom is Valérie, and again Michel is alone with his nihilism, but this time permanently in Thailand.
Obviously, my above paragraph leaves out a great deal. It leaves out the controversies: Houellebecq's real criticism of Islam came from his remarks made after the publication of the book; his apparent advocacy – sorry, the narrator's apparent advocacy – of sex tourism was bound to offend many people; and certainly, his insults about the Guide du Routard offended the makers.
It leaves out the love story, and this is without doubt a love story. Valérie and Michel may have other partners, but this is a free-thinking couple and they share partners with each other at the same time on a one-off basis. The essential issue here is their love, which transforms them both, and which existentially destroys Michel when his lover dies.
It leaves out all the sex, and there is much of it, some of it often very graphic.
It leaves out the comic parts, and there are many of them. I particularly liked 'Living without reading is dangerous, you have to put up with life, which can lead to taking risks.' But much of the amusement in this novel comes from situations, such as the barman-cum-waiter in Cuba in his swimming trunks shaking his 'three-piece kit' at the Québecan widows as he serves their dinner and makes them quake with sexual excitement.
It leaves out the satire, for instance, of the art world in the form of Bertrand Bredane, who appears to be a Damien Hirst-gone-mad with his installations of young girls with rotting meat in their underpants, and flies bred from the excretions of other flies and let loose on the spectators.
It leaves out the ideas, such as the decline of sex in the modern world, and sex between two people who love each other degenerating into sex between two people who dislike each other, and perhaps this leads to sado-masochism? Unless capitalists can find a rare way of making money automatically then they'll always be at war with others, vying to make more, and this is beyond any doubt a criticism, a break with the nihilism, but there's no point at all in voting, and politicians are only good for laughing at on television.
Most of all, it leaves out the fact that Houellebecq is constructing a picture – distorted, but maybe not terribly so – of the modern world, of how we live, of how we are torturing both ourselves and each other in pursuit of the unattainable.
I'm sure many people hate Houellebecq, but many love him, although it seems unusual to feel about him the way he – or should that again be his central character – feels about life: a shrug of the shoulders, a je-m'en-foutiste attitude. I loved it.
My other posts on Michel Houellebecq:
Michel Houellebecq: La Carte et le territoire | The Map and the Territory
Michel Houellebecq: Les Particules élémentaires | Atomised