“If the general climate is bad, all will be affected by it. Men and women of letters are not expected to do more than they can, as they express this bad situation in their literary production. With respect to the question of the appeal of a particular work, the whole thing depends on whether the text itself is good and capable of expressing reality; it is not a problem of literature or writers only but is a symptom of the crisis of society as a whole.”1
Naguib Mahfouz’s comments on the so called ‘crisis of the novel’ are a useful starting point to discuss Michel Houellebecq’s third book Platform, not least because its tone – perfectly plausible in the context of a literary interview – is strikingly similar to much of the ‘dialogue’ in this inflammatory novel. This is a novel about race and culture, in which the few characters who are actually given a voice theorise in the manner of experts answering, wearily as if by rote, text-book questions:
“Robert continued to expound his theory. ‘At the time when the white man though himself superior, racism wasn’t dangerous. For colonials, missionaries and lay teachers in the nineteenth century, the Negro was a big animal, none too clever, a sort of slightly more evolved monkey. At worst they considered him a useful beast of burden, capable of performing complex tasks; at best a frustrated soul, coarse, but, through education, capable of elevating himself to God – or at least western reason. In both cases they saw in him a ‘lesser brother’, and one does not feel hatred for an inferior – at most a sort of cordial contempt. This benevlolent, almost humanist racism has completely vanished.[…] “[Platform pg 113]
This conversation piece (necessarily truncated here, it goes on for another page before reaching a climax, pause, or intervention), takes place in a brothel between relative strangers.
The biggest problem of this novel is not its casual pornography, misogny, or apparent racism. Wholesome attitudes or actions are not a particularly useful yardstick to apply to literature. As Lionel Shriver commented in interview with TMO some years ago, “If you don’t allow yourself to write characters who do disagreeable things—if you only allow yourself to write about what you would be glad for your readers to imitate in real life—then you’re pretty much constrained to characters who help little old ladies across the street and rescue cats from trees”.
No, the biggest problem with this novel is that, despite being compelling, challenging, and often very good, taken as a novel it falls flat.
Let’s go back to Mahfouz:
“At one time poetry used to be the master of all literary modes, but recently the novel has succeeded in displacing it, since the novel satisfies human needs much more than poetry does-hence this vigorous interaction between the two genres. Poetry is content with touching people’s injuries; thus they cry in pain. The novel, however, treats the injury as a skilled surgeon does; it delves into the injury and casts an illuminating light on its various dimensions and explores its multiple details. Thus a state of “human understanding” between the novel and reader is reached. This process also leads to a kind of empathy, which eventually impels us to read a novel until we finish it from cover to cover.”
Now its debatable whether empathy is necessary in a novel – Michel R. the narrator of Platform stirred neither sympathy or empathy in this reader, yet I had no problem reading it from cover to cover. Mahfouz’s distinction between poetry and the novel, though, holds the key to why, in my opinion, this is a poor novel. This is a novel that touches peoples injuries – and often with great skill. You’d be hard put to find anyone, anywhere who isn’t offended somewhere in this 362 page book. That inflammatory (yes, it’s worth repeating) quality makes the book compelling, pushing and pulling the reader through its pages (though you’d be forgiven for skipping over the frequent intrusions of mechanical sex, to get to the good bits – the bits when the author focusses on something other than bodily parts) as Houellebecq skips audaciously (insolently?) from topic to topic – we get digressions on Salurid fish seeking out radioctive water, through to the literary merits of Agetha Christie.
But, there is no surgical intervention here. No illumination. We start the book with Michel, the narrator, isolated and cut off from human contact (with that old French trick of a murdered parent causing no grief), and we end the book with Michel the narrator isolated and cut off from human contact – and the main reason we know he is in despair is because he repeatedly tells us:
“I wasn’t happy, but I valued happiness and continued to aspire to it” (Pg14)”
‘We were already doomed” (Pg 51)
“Like an animal, I had lived and I would die alone. For several minutes I wallowed in gratuitous self-pity”(pg130)
“Nothing of me will survive, and I do not deserver for anything of me to survive; I will have been a mediocre individual in every possible sense”
you get the picture.
This constant decision to tell the reader rather than show him/her is all the more frustrating given that Houellebecq is able to throw out brilliant lines, that speak volumes, with seeming ease: “I’m forty, I’ve already had plenty of opportunity to see corpses; nowadays I prefer to avoid them. It was this that had always dissuaded me from getting a pet”(Pg1). Novelist James Meek, when asked by Three Monkeys what kind of writers he admired, named Houellebecq precisely for this quality:
” love to be surprised not so much by a twist of plot as a twist of characterisation. As soon as I read, in the very early pages of Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, the sentence “It was rumoured the director was homosexual, but in reality he was simply a drunk”, I knew I would read the book to the end. All that matters, all that great novelists have in common, is truth, and narrative. What it is that makes you believe, and what makes you keep turning the page.”
There’s plenty to keep you turning the pages in Platform, but, sadly, just as much to prevent you from really believing in the narrative.