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  • Platform
  • Written by Michel Houellebecq
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Platform

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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In his new work, Michel Houellebecq combines erotic provocation with a terrifying vision of a world teetering between satiety and fanaticism, to create one of the most shocking, hypnotic, and intelligent novels in years.

In his early forties, Michel Renault skims through his days with as little human contact as possible. But following his father’s death he takes a group holiday to Thailand where he meets a travel agent—the shyly compelling Valérie—who begins to bring this half-dead man to life with sex of escalating intensity and audacity. Arcing with dreamlike swiftness from Paris to Pattaya Beach and from sex clubs to a terrorist massacre, Platform is a brilliant, apocalyptic masterpiece by a man who is widely regarded as one of the world’s most original and daring writers.

Excerpt

1

Father died last year. I don’t subscribe to the theory that 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.” I was a bit tense, I have to admit. It’s not every day you have a death in the family. I’d refused to see the corpse. 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.

I’m not married, either. I’ve had the opportunity several times, but I never took it. That said, I really love women. It’s always been a bit of a regret, for me, being single. It’s particularly awkward on vacations. People are suspicious of single men on vacation, after they get to a certain age: they assume that they’re selfish, and probably a bit pervy. I can’t say they’re wrong.

After the funeral, I went back to the house where my father lived out his last years. The body had been discovered a week earlier. A little dust had already settled around the furniture and in the corners of the rooms; I noticed a cobweb on the window frame. So time, entropy, all that stuff, was slowly taking the place over. The freezer was empty. The kitchen cupboards mostly contained single-serving Weight Watchers instant meals, tins of flavored protein, and energy bars. I wandered through the rooms nibbling a granola bar. In the boiler room, I rode the exercise bike for a while. My father was over seventy and in much better physical shape than I was. He did an hour of rigorous exercise every day, laps in the pool twice a week. On weekends, he played tennis and went cycling with people his age. I’d met some of them at the funeral. “He coached the lot of us!” a gynecologist exclaimed. “He was ten years older than us, but on a two-kilometer hill, he’d be a whole minute ahead.” Father, Father, I said to myself, how great was your vanity! To the left of my field of vision I could make out a weightlifting bench, barbells. I quickly visualized a moron in shorts—his face wrinkled, but otherwise very like mine—building up his pectorals with hopeless vigor. Father, I said to myself, Father, you have built your house upon sand. I was still pedaling but I was starting to feel breathless—my thighs already ached a little, though I was only on level 1. Thinking back to the ceremony, I was aware that I had made an excellent general impression. I’m always clean-shaven, my shoulders are narrow, and when I developed a bald spot at about the age of thirty, I decided to cut my hair very short. I usually wear a gray suit and sober ties, and I don’t look particularly cheerful. With my short hair, my lightweight glasses, and my sul- len expression, my head bowed a little to listen to a Christian funeral-hymn mix,* I felt perfectly at ease with the situation—much more at ease than I would have been at a wedding, for example. Funerals, clearly, were my thing. I stopped pedaling, coughed gently. Night was falling quickly over the surrounding meadows. Near the concrete structure that housed the boiler, you could make out a brownish stain that had been poorly cleaned. It was there that my father had been discovered, his skull shattered, wearing shorts and an “I ™ New York” sweatshirt. He had been dead for three days, according to the coroner. There was the possibility, very remote, that what happened was an accident, he could have slipped in a puddle of oil or something. That said, the floor of the room was completely dry, and the skull had been broken in several places. Some of the brain had even spilled onto the floor. In all probability, what we were dealing with was murder. Captain Chaumont of the Cherbourg police was supposed to come over to see me that evening.

Back in the living room, I turned on the television, a thirty-two-inch Sony widescreen with surround sound and an integrated DVD player. There was an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess on TF1, one of my favorite series. Two very muscular women wearing metallic bras and miniskirts made of animal hide were challenging each other with their sabers. “Your reign has gone on too long, Tagrathâ!” cried the brunette. “I am Xena, warrior of the Western Plains!” There was a knock at the door; I turned the sound down.

Outside, it was dark. The wind gently shook the branches dripping with rain. A girl of about twenty-five who looked North African was standing in the doorway. “I’m Aïcha,” she said. “I cleaned for Monsieur Renault twice a week. I’ve just come to get my things.”

“Well . . . ,” I said, “. . . well.” I managed a gesture that was intended to be welcoming. She came in and glanced quickly at the television screen. The two warriors were now wrestling right next to a volcano; I suppose the spectacle had its stimulating side, for a certain kind of lesbian. “I don’t want to disturb you,” said Aïcha. “I’ll only be five minutes.”

“You’re not disturbing me,” I said. “In fact, nothing disturbs me.” She nodded her head as though she understood, her eyes lingered on my face; she was probably gauging my physical resemblance to my father, possibly inferring a degree of moral resemblance. After studying me for a few moments, she turned and climbed the stairs that led to the bedrooms. “Take your time,” I said, my voice barely audible. “Take all the time you need.” She didn’t answer, didn’t pause in her ascent; she had probably not even heard me. I sat down on the sofa again, exhausted by the confrontation. I should have offered to take her coat. That’s what you usually do, offer to take someone’s coat. I realized that the room was terribly cold—a damp, penetrating cold, the cold of a cellar. I didn’t know how to light the boiler, I had no wish to try, now my father was dead and I had intended to leave right away. I turned over to FR3 just in time to catch the last part of Questions pour un champion. At the moment when Nadège from Val-Fourré told Julien Lepers that she was going to risk her title for the third time, Aïcha appeared on the stairs, a small travel bag on her shoulder. I turned off the television and walked quickly toward her. “I’ve always admired Julien Lepers,” I told her. “Even if he doesn’t know the actual town or village the contestant is from, he always manages to say something about the department or the region; he always knows a bit about the climate and the local scenery. Above all, he understands life. The contestants are human beings to him, he understands their problems and their joys. Nothing of what constitutes human reality for the contestants is entirely strange or intimidating to him. Whoever the contestant is, he manages to get them to talk about their work, their family, their hobbies—everything, in fact, that in their eyes goes to make up a life. The contestants are often members of a brass band or a choral society, they’re involved in organizing the local fair, or they devote themselves to some charitable cause. Their children are often there in the studio. You generally get the impression from the program that these people are happy, and you feel better, happier yourself. Don’t you think?”

She looked at me unsmilingly. Her hair was in a chignon, she wore little makeup, her clothes were pretty drab—a serious girl. She hesitated for a moment before saying in a low voice, a little hoarse with shyness: “I was very fond of your father.” I couldn’t think of anything to say. It struck me as bizarre, but just about possible. The old man must have had stories to tell: he’d traveled in Colombia, Kenya, or I don’t know where; he’d had the opportunity to watch rhinoceros through binoculars. Every time we met, he limited himself to making fun of the fact that I was a civil servant, about the job security that went with it. “Got yourself a cushy little number, there,” he would say, making no attempt to hide his scorn. Families are always a bit difficult. “I’m studying nursing,” Aïcha went on, “but since I stopped living with my parents I have had to work as a cleaner.” I racked my brains to think of an appropriate response: was I supposed to ask how expensive rents were in Cherbourg? I finally opted for an “I see,” into which I tried to introduce a certain worldly wisdom. This seemed to satisfy her and she walked to the door. I pressed my face to the glass to watch her Volkswagen Polo do a U-turn in the muddy track. FR3 was showing some rustic made-for-TV movie set in the nineteenth century, starring Tchéky Karyo as a sharecropper. Between piano lessons, the daughter of the landowner—he was played by Jean-Pierre Marielle—accorded the handsome peasant certain liberties. Their clinches took place in a stable. I dozed off just as Tchéky Karyo was energetically ripping off her organza panties. The last thing I remember was a close-up of a small litter of pigs.

* This word and all others marked with an asterisk appear in English in the original French edition.
Michel Houellebecq

About Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq - Platform

Photo © Michael Lionstar

Already honored with the Prix Novembre and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Michel Houellebecq won the Prix Goncourt for The Map and the Territory in 2010.
Praise

Praise

“A terrific writer, funny and prophetic . . . feverishly alive to the world around him.” – The New York Times Book Review

“Calculated to poke, prod, engorge, enrage and amuse. . . . It’s dangerous in the way that literature is meant to be dangerous—that is, it awakens neglected sensibilities.”—The New York Observer

“Houellebecq’s writing has a raw, disquieting brilliance. . . .It’s ‘genius.’”—The Washington Post

“Brilliant, charming, puzzling, annoying and sometimes downright repulsive.” —The Denver Post

“Full, acidic, self-flagellating . . . [Platform has] earned Mr. Houellebecq the status of conversation piece, agent provocateur and savage messiah.” —The New York Times

“Remarkable . . . hilarious. . . . [Houellebecq] writes from the soul of a despairing, acutely lucid bureaucrat on Viagra.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Scaldingly honest . . . [Platform] takes no prisoners as to prevailing terms of politically correct or any-other-way-correct discourse. . . . It frequently uses jarring juxtaposition to dislocate us from complacencies, received wisdoms or even moderate comfort. . . . The analysis is broad and extremely knowledgeable . . . [with] quirky and sometimes horrific observations on everything from ecology to airport gift shops to incest. . . . Bracing.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“The most potentially weighty French novelist to emerge since Tournier. . . . The trajectory of Houellebecq’s world view will be worth following.” —The New Yorker

“An outstandingly powerful and relevant novel about sex, death, and Islam.” —Hanif Kureishi

“Astute, graceful, sexually preoccupied, occasionally alarming. . . . Eviscerat[es] the cultural moment.” —The Baltimore Sun

“The characters in Platform are detestable. . . . And the hatred [Michel] expresses . . . is loathsome. . . . But what is wrong with this? Why should literature not be as cruel as life itself? . . . This book offers us an ‘I’ we can relate to–hate, love, fear–without being pointedly obstructed by the author’s tormented cosmology. . . . Moving.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Brilliant. . . . Reads like a shot. . . . The excitement of Platform is the force with which Houellebecq says the unsayable, his determination to cut through moral equivocation.” —Salon

“[A] dirty novel of ideas. . . . Houellebecq’s sex scenes are hot and bountiful.” —Entertainment Weekly

“An extraordinary blend of pornography, satire and diatribe . . . Houellebecq is an undeniably gifted writer–I found myself reading on, even when the impulse to throw the book across the room grew strong.” —Charles Matthews, San Jose Mercury News

“Odd, subversive entertainment.” —The Boston Globe

“What’s at stake is the desacralizing of sex, its final leap into the realm of pure commodity, the role of implacable consumption in cultural imperialism. . . . It’s not the kind of book you only read once.” —The Village Voice

“Cynical and anomic . . . literary and complex.” –The Atlantic Monthly

“Shockingly vile and shockingly banal, written with an ear toward pissing off just about everyone. . . . Houellebecq’s novel is tough to put down no matter how much you’d like to. . . . Like good porn it’s increasingly difficult to draw your eyes away as it oozes toward climax.” —Austin Chronicle

“A work of considerable imagination and wit. Even when the reader is most repelled, he may want to view the writer with grudging admiration. . . . [Michel Renault’s rants] are very funny, and . . . very true.” —The Sunday Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ)

Platform cuts precisely to the core of every imaginable big-picture problem facing the world. . . . Houellebecq knows how to get a rise out of his readers. . . . His prejudices are serious, and current.” —American Book Review

“Houellebecq writes with an honesty and an anomic conviction that raises his novels, beyond any single troubling moment, toward genius.” —Toronto Globe and Mail

“The most important book of the year–and perhaps of the century thus far. . . . Dazzling and prescient. . .Houellebecq [is] one of the finest novelists of ideas alive.” —Evening Standard (London)

“Brilliant. . .A thrilling read, close to Swift’s A Modest Proposal in its impact.” —Daily Telegraph (London)

“Extraordinarily good. . . Houellebecq is one of the few novelists working in any language who properly understands the tensions of the present age. He is also utterly fearless in articulating this.” —New Statesman

“Houellebecq writes with humor as sharp as a razor’s edge. There is bravery and even bravado in [his] prose. He alone among contemporary writers is prepared to do what the likes of Orwell and Huxley did and put up a mirror to our past and project its reflection on the future.” —Financial Times (London)

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“A terrific writer, funny and prophetic . . . feverishly alive to the world around him.” —The New York Times Book Review

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Michel Houellebecq’s controversial and powerful new novel, Platform.

About the Guide

Michel Renault is a civil servant, forty years old and numb to the world. When his father is murdered Michel’s response is a contemptuous sneer. He has no lover, no close friends, and almost no real interest in either his own life or the lives of those around him. Acutely aware of the hollowness at the core of western culture, Michel has no illusions about his own worth, describing himself as “good for nothing” and a “parasite.” That Houellebecq can make the fate of such a narrator so compelling is one of the remarkable feats of Platform.

After his father’s death, Michel embarks on a Thai Tropic tour, where he indulges his enthusiasm for Thai prostitutes, makes wry observations about the social habits of his fellow tourists, and keeps his distance from Valérie, a young employee of the tour company who, for reasons he cannot quite fathom, seems interested in him. Back in Paris, however, they fall into an erotically charged relationship, and Michel experiences intimacy he had all but banished from his life. They move through the Parisian avant-garde art scene and sex clubs, but as Valerie climbs higher and higher in tourism industry, they are drawn back to Thailand. Michel invents a scheme to revive the struggling chain of hotels for which Valérie now works. His idea is to bring third world poverty and the dissatisfactions of western men into a fruitful union of expanded sex tourism. Michel’s plan turns out to be highly successful, but not everyone is happy about it, and as the novel pushes towards its dramatic conclusion, Michel feels the full force of the violent antipathy his idea has created.

In the tradition of Camus and Dostoevsky, Houellebecq has written a novel unflinching in its depiction of a world where not even capitalism, art, literature, religion, travel, or sex can offer any lasting escape from the bleakness of the human predicament.

About the Author

Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles, an international bestseller, won the prestigious Prix Novembre in France as well as the lucrative International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. He lives in Ireland.

Discussion Guides

1. What kind of narrator is Michel Renault? How does he view the world? How is he different from the narrators of most contemporary fiction?

2. Michel admires Agatha Christie for her “Dickensian sense of wonder” and her depiction of despair: “This was despair—this utter outer darkness of coldness and loneliness. And the sin of despair, that priests talked of, was a cold sin, the sin of cutting oneself off from all warm and living human contacts” [p. 71]. Why does Michel find this passage so compelling? How does it illuminate his character and circumstance?

3. What is surprising about the way Michel reacts to his father’s death? What do his reactions reveal about his character, his history? Why does he think that his father’s death gives him “a certain freedom” [p. 62]?

4. When Aicha, his father’s cleaning woman, tells Michel, “I don’t want to disturb you,” he responds: “You’re not disturbing me. In fact, nothing disturbs me” [p. 5]. Where else in the novel do we see this kind of passivity from Michel? Why has he moved beyond the conventional emotional responses to his world? What events have made it impossible for him to be disturbed? Does he change over the course of the novel?

5. Why does Michel despise popular American novelists like Tom Clancy and John Grisham. How does he express his contempt for these books? In what important ways is Houellebecq’s approach to the novel different from such authors?

6. Valérie tells Jean-Yves “Do you really want to buy yourself a Ferrari cabriolet? A holiday home in Deauville, which will only get burgled anyway? To work ninety hours a week until you’re sixty? . . . The only thing the Western world has to offer is designer products” [p. 234]. In what ways can Platform be read as an indictment of the emptiness of western culture and western values? To what extent is Valérie right in her assessment of what the West has to offer and what it demands in return?

7. Some reviewers have criticized Platform for its apparent anti-Islamic sentiment. Is this a fair criticism? How are Muslims depicted in the book?

8. Michel describes himself dismissively throughout the novel: “What had I produced in the forty years of my existence? To tell the truth, not very much. . . . It would be easy to get by without people like me” [p. 63]. “I was perfectly adapted to the information age—that is to say, good for nothing” [p. 161]. How does Houellebecq manage to make Michel interesting to readers, in spite of his lack of interest in himself? In what ways can Michel be seen as an antihero?

9. Michel writes, “The minute they have a couple of days of freedom, the inhabitants of Western Europe dash off to the other side of the world . . . they behave—literally—like escaped convicts” [p. 20]. What inherent problems with tourism and the desire for travel does Platform explore? What is Michel’s solution to that problem? Why is his idea to expand sex tourism greeted with both enthusiasm and outrage?

10. At the end of the novel, Michel says, “If by chance it had been my intention, when I began writing these pages, to lessen the feeling of loss, or to make it more bearable, I would by now be certain of my failure: Valérie’s absence has never been more painful to me” [p. 256]. How has the knowledge of Valérie’s death colored the tone and mood of Michel’s writing? Why hasn’t writing eased his pain or provided any kind of enlightenment?

11. Why does Houellebecq write about sex so often and in such detail in Platform? What value does sex have in Michel’s life?

12. What are some of the funnier moments in Platform? How does humor fit into the darker fabric of the novel?

13. Platform has generated a good deal of controversy in France and elsewhere, with readers, critics, and fellow writers being sharply divided about both the literary merits of the novel and what some feel to be its deliberately offensive or shocking passages. What is it about the novel that has sparked this controversy?

14. When Valérie voices her incomprehension of masochism, Michel reflects that “the things people do, the things they are prepared to endure . . . there was nothing to be made of all this, no overall conclusion, no meaning” [p. 137]. Does Houellebecq intend his readers to view Platform in this way? Does the novel offer any larger meaning?

Suggested Readings

Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot; Albert Camus, The Stranger; Benjamin Cavell, Rumble, Young Man, Rumble; Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground; Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls; Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude; J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye; Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit.

  • Platform by Michel Houellebecq
  • July 13, 2004
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $15.95
  • 9781400030262

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