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A small conceit of the English translation of Michel Houellebecq's PLATFORM is that certain words and phrases the author originally used in English are boldfaced, presumably so that readers will know that they carried a sort of extra Anglo-Saxon punch in the original text. However, the boldfaced words also recall the talent of Frank Wynne, Houellebecq's translator. I mention these words because I otherwise might not have remembered that I was reading a translated text, so clearly and accurately has Wynne rendered the author's unmistakable, inimitable voice.

With that said, this is not a voice all readers will appreciate. Protagonist and first-person narrator Michel Renault lives a small, sour existence as a middle-aged, middle-management civil servant. His Paris contains no romance and less contentment, and so he travels --- but his coldly assessing eye hardly allows him to enjoy his journeys or his arrivals. Sex in a variety of forms preoccupies him, and it is through sexual experiences that he seems to at least feel alive. While the women on his tour mainly disgust him (the young and nubile he deems "sluts"; the older and more aware he derides in various ways), women whom he can pay for sex receive the small bits of appreciation he can muster.

Still, it is a fellow tour group member, Valérie, with whom Michel connects when back in Paris. Michel, whose barely restrained anger towards his recently dead father once prevented him from pairing off with anyone besides his own hand, finds Valérie's combination of submissive generosity and high-paying job as a tourism executive irresistible. Their relationship brings him so much contentment that his boss comments that he seems happy. Despite their calm domestic bliss, the pair (both of whom seem quite addicted to orgasm) soon finds themselves drawn to more and more extreme erotic adventures.

Most of the time, PLATFORM seems more like one for Houellebecq's extreme yet articulate views than it does a novel --- yet his frozen-eyed comments on capitalism, religion, and gender politics are uncomfortably close to the secret thoughts so many people have. When Michel and Valérie devise a plan to turn her company's tours into sex holidays, they return together to the Thailand where he once experienced the zipless pleasures of a remarkably sanitary sex worker. (As Julian Barnes wrote in The New Yorker, "The novel's really nice, straightforward characters are Oriental masseuses and prostitutes, who are presented as being without flaws, diseases, pimps, addictions, or hang-ups.")

For a moment, it seems that everyone will be happy, even Valérie's dour boss, Jean-Yves (given his straitlaced viewpoint, Houellebecq seems to say that it's no wonder his wife moonlights as a dominatrix). But alas, an early discussion Michel has with his father's housekeeper-mistress, whose Muslim honor avenged resulted in Renault pére's murder, presages the tragic end of the resort community and Michel's brief personal paradise. That this paradise is based on Western woman's supposed boredom with the all-too-familiar sex-for-love equation and the purported eagerness of Eastern woman to trade sex for the simple things (groceries, reliability, good manners) makes Houellebecq's Utopia terribly disturbing --- and terribly thought-provoking.

Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick on January 22, 2011

by Michel Houellebecq

  • Publication Date: July 13, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 1400030269
  • ISBN-13: 9781400030262