Today, I started reading Michel Houellebecq’s novel “Platform” in its German translation (it’s due to be released in an English translation in a few weeks btw). Having read - and enjoyed - The Elementary Particles I was hoping for a similar litarary feast and I think I will not be disappointed (this is being written being around 100 pages into the book).
A lot has already been said and written about M Houellebecq, maybe too much. See, for example, a review in The Guardian (unfortunately, the reviewer is way too concerned to stress British superiority over France to get his job done properly) or a review by Salman Rushdie. Mr Rushdie’s review centers not so much on the book but on what many reviewers have held against M Houellebecq, namely that the book contains some strong “anti-Islamic” statements - apart from (oh, the horror!) all those sex scene (of which there actually aren’t as many as you’d think).
Mr Rushdie has lots of good points there. If we assume that a book’s character’s ideas are the writer’s how can we deal with literature about Nazis, say, or which literature in general? This is basically the point which made a French court decide Houellebecq had not insulted Islam. And you might even add that after the bombing of the tourist resort in Bali M Houellebecq’s Platform isn’t that absurd after all - there is a deeply nihilistic state of mind behind Al Qaeda, that, according to Slavoj Zizek, is just a mirror image of our own society (see Welcome To The Desert Of The Real).
If one is willing to ignore all the criticism of the sex scenes - basically just an expression of how prudish mainstream culture still is - there’s another aspect which has been raised, namely that M Houellebecq’s whole life seems to be just some show. If we accepted that as the truth - we don’t have to but we might - why do we raise that exception only when literature is concerned and not when, say, we’re dealing with those artificial character we know as “pop stars” or “actors”? Why those double standards? And how would we behave if we were famous writers?
Paraphrasing a sentence in “Platform” I think the main reason why many people don’t want to deal with “nihilistic” books like this is because they make us look into a mirror. And the reflection is not what we like to see.
Update (4 July 2003): The New Yorker has a long and interesting review of “Platform”. Very New Yorker (to use the vernacular).