Tomorrow's Books: Reviews: Books to Avoid


Michel Houellebecq

     Michel Houellebecq’s follow-up to the best-selling Atomised has caused a furore in France, where Muslims have accused him of inciting racial hatred.  Platform’s anti-hero is certainly vitriolic about Islam – but he is also vitriolic about Western women, engineering graduates and Frederick Forsyth.  It is the people this seedy misanthrope likes, such as Buddhists, who ought to be outraged.
     Michel is a middle-aged civil servant whose life is fuelled by sex  (usually paid for) and mashed potato.  Following the murder of his unloved father, he travels to Thailand to try the local women. There he meets Valérie, a nubile tour operator, and the two embark on an X-rated relationship.
     When Valérie is asked to revive a flagging company, Michel – arguing that the only thing the world’s poor can offer Westerners is their bodies – suggests package sex tours as the way forward.  The company flourishes, until Islamic militants take exception to it and things turn extremely nasty.
     Not that they aren’t pretty nasty already.  The first page, on which Michel crudely imagines his parents’ sex life, sets the tone.  Pederasty, S&M and wife-swapping are all grist to his grimy mill: the one thing that keeps you reading is a gruesome fascination with how far he’s prepared to go.
     Houellebecq’s central idea has plenty of satiric potential, but sadly Platform offers no laughs.  Its observations on tourism are generally mundane, and its theories about sex ludicrous.  In fact, of all the insults the novel offers, the greatest is to the reader’s intelligence.
     The crux lies in Michel’s affair with Valérie, who tells him that he is the love of her life.  Since there has been nothing to suggest that he is remotely lovable – or capable of love – their relationship is both unexpected and completely implausible.  Why Houillebecq should imagine that he could get away with this conjuring trick is explicable only in terms of arrogance.
     Platform is not just repulsive, it is repulsive to no purpose.  Unless, of course, you like to believe that all Frenchmen are sex-mad poseurs who talk nonsense about life in general and l’amour in particular – in which case you could hardly ask for better evidence.


Don DeLillo

     As his financial empire approaches meltdown, and a disgruntled former employee plots to kill him, currency speculator Eric Packer sets off across Manhattan in his marble-floored limousine to get his hair cut.  Along the way he murders one of his henchmen, is attacked by anti-capitalist demonstrators swinging rats, and undergoes an anal probe while conducting a business meeting.  It sounds surreal, and it is: although DeLillo pretends to set his tale in the year 2000, he effectively creates a paranoid, futuristic world where technology and money markets are everything.  But in all other respects, this experimental novel is hopelessly misconceived – the unrelenting absurdity of the narrative destroys any glimmer of humour or suspense, and the dialogue will have even the most devoted DeLillo fans rolling their eyes in disbelief.  When one character tells another, ‘We die because it’s the weekend’, you feel like imploring Scotty to beam you up.