We find a play within a play in Hamlet and a novel within a novel in many postmodern novels. But we don’t always find literary criticism within the novel. And when we do, the reader can take such criticism as a possible key to understanding the (main) novel. During a trip to Thailand with a tourist group, the main character of Michel Houellebecq’s Platform tells his readers that he tried reading two American novels – The Firm by John Grisham and Total Control by David Baldacci. He found both books unsatisfying. His criticism of the books shows the reader that he doesn’t appreciate novels whose plots and characters are obvious. The narrator is more interested in the English novel – by writers such as Sir Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie – because they give the reader the “pleasure of recognition” and the “pleasure of discovery.”
But it is his insightful literary criticism of the latter that gives the reader a key into the kind of novel he is – so to speak – writing and about the kind of reader who can best appreciate it. It is the sudden twists of fate that produce indifferent artists and ruined writers that the narrator finds most intriguing. Can the artist or writer, he muses, be truly happy? Is their happiness “filtered” by art or obliterated by their dedication to harsh reality (which, in their view, always ends on a bitter note)? Or is it history which has the final say on how a novel is written….or received? After 9/11 or after historical irruptions of terrorism, will plots, characters, and writers be ruined? And instead of the “pleasure of recognition” (or “discovery”) does the reader experience the opposite: the shock of recognition (or discovery)?
When the narrator first mentions the Grisham book, he mockingly notes that “it was an American best-seller, one of those that sold the most copies. The hero was a young lawyer with a bright future, a talented good-looking boy who worked eighty hours a week”(37). In contrast to the main character of that novel, he works for the government (and has an indifferent relationship to his work; which is to book cultural and artistic events for Parisians). This novel makes him sick because of its obviousness:
Not only was this shit so obviously a proto-screenplay it was obscene, but you had the feeling that the author had already given some thought to the casting, since the part had obviously been written for Tom Cruise. The here’s wife wasn’t bad either, even if she didn’t work eighty hours a week, but in this case, Nicole Kidman wouldn’t fit, it wasn’t a part for someone with curly hair – more like someone with a blow dry….It was a suspense thriller – well, there was a little suspense. (37)
When he comes to the part in the novel where “Tom Cruise…was still plagued with worries about his affair with the mixed-race girl”(65) who he meets in his travels abroad, the narrator starts experiencing the confluence of reality and fiction. Since he is in Thailand and has seen Thai girls (the theme of sex tourism is central to the novel), his criticism of the novel becomes sharper.
The idiot (Tom Cruise character) behaved as though the future of his marriage was at stake…Eventually, the hero’s unremitting remorse, though it was of no interest whatsoever, began to interfere with the plot…it was enough to make you angry, and it wound up making you sick. (65)
From this disgust with the novel, we learn that the American character should feel no remorse about his affair. It ruins the plot because it should, as the narrator thinks, be seen as natural. To be sure, this shows that the narrator has no problem with affairs and embraces the notion of sex tourism as a matter of course.
The narrator then turns to the Baldacci book and finds it equally disgusting. What he finds reprehensible is the American perspective on a European company “that had resorted to fraudulent practices in order to corner the market. Said market should have been the territory of the American company for which the hero was working”(66). The European company “said bad guys” had the “audacity to smoke several cigarettes”(66). These simple dichotomies prompt him to “bury the two books” in a “small hole.”
This irks him.
Now he has to find something to read. If he doesn’t he will have to face the fact that his death may be meaningless and that he may die alone, without “knowing a wife’s body.”
The problem now was that I had to find something to read. Not having anything around to read is dangerous: you have to content yourself with life itself, and that can lead you to take risks. At the age of fourteen, one afternoon when the fog was particularly dense, I got lost while skiing, and I had to make my away across some avalanche corridors. What I remember most were the leaden clouds, hanging very low, and the utter silence on the mountain….Despite this, I wasn’t in the least afraid. I was annoyed that things had turned out this way, annoyed for myself and for everyone else. I would have preferred a more conventional death, more official in a way, with an illness, a funeral, tears. Most of all, I regretted never having known a wife’s body. (66)
Fiction, in other words, is a distraction. And the American fictions aren’t working. However, when he discuses literature with a woman who, later in the novel, becomes his lover, we learn that Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie are two of his most favorite authors. And his literary criticism shows us that literature does, in fact, let the darkness it…through the cracks.
Every story introduces some new peculiarity (the cocaine, the violin, the existence of the older brother, Mycroft, the taste for Italian opera…). Each new detail that is revealed casts new areas of shadow, creating a truly fascinating character. Thus, Conan Doyle succeeded in creating a perfect mixture of the pleasure of discovery and the pleasure of recognition. (69)
In contrast, he feels that Agatha Christie “placed too much emphasis on the pleasure of recognition”(70). However, the narrator tells us that “The Hollow was different” and that “was largely due to the ambitious character of Henrietta, the sculptor, in whom Agatha Christie tried to portray not only the agony of creation…but that suffering that is particular to being an artist, an inability to be truly happy or unhappy, to truly feel hatred, despair, ecstasy or love”(70). And this “inability to be truly happy or unhappy, to truly feel despair, etc” is due to the “aesthetic filter that separate the artist from the world”(70). These words, to be sure, describe the way the reader of Houelebecq’s novel should read the narrator. But they don’t go far enough.
The narrator completes his assessment of Christie’s portrayal of the artist by noting that she over-identified with the sculptor and, as a result:
This isolation causes the artist to experience her surroundings in only a vague, ambiguous, and completely less intense manner, making her a less interesting character. (70)
These words are to be read as cautionary and should prompt a question for the reader: is the narrator indifferent to his surroundings because Houellebecq, the author, is too close to his character or is there a margin which creates a more interesting character who experiences things in an intense manner?
In Christie’s novel it is the writer, Edward, who contrasts most with the sculptor. He thinks of himself as a failure. And this suggests another identification for Houellebecq that alters our reception of the male narrator of Platform:
The author is clearly fascinated with her creation, who has clearly forgotten even those rules that apply to all human beings. She must have enjoyed writing sentences like “But then one doesn’t exactly introduce people – not when somebody has just been killed” but her sympathies did not lie with Lady Angkatell….Edward, for his part thinks himself a failure. He hasn’t succeeded at anything in his life, not even becoming a writer; he writes short stories of disenchanted irony for obscure journals read only by confirmed bibliophiles. (71)
Midge, a character who “loves Edward hopelessly,” saves “Edward from committing suicide, and in which he proposes to her”(71). Likewise, in the novel, Valerie saves the narrator from self-hatred and self-destruction.
Her arms closed round him firmly. He smiled at her, murmuring:
“You’re so warm, Midge – you’re so warm.”
Yes, she thought, that was what despair was. A cold thing, a thing of infinite coldness and loneliness. She’d never understood until now that despair was a cold thing. She always thought of it as something hot and passionate, something violent, a hot-blooded desperation. But that was not so – this utter 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 contacts. (71)
The irony of these lines is that, at the end of Platform, the narrator loses Valerie to an act of terror. Moreover, the narrator is not the only one experiences despair. The reader does as well. However, it is not after someone is saved from suicide; it is when someone is killed in the most horrible way: through an act of terrorism in which a lover’s body parts are blown away in front of the lover.
Although the narrator may leave literature behind for the risks of life and the possibility of a meaningless death and succeeds – by way of finding a woman who he can love – he is exposed to the death. But it is not his death; it is the death of the beloved. And as Emmanuel Levinas notes, in contrast to Heidegger, it is the death of the other that concerns me more than my death because I am a-being-for-the-other.
The narrator’s literary criticism of Agatha Christie shows us, ironically, that the “pleasure of recognition” and “discovery,” in Houellebecq’s Platform, are out of balance because we can assume that, for the writer, there is no pleasure in recognizing himself as a failure; not at writing so much as in the risks he takes with a woman he meets on his trip. In the end, the writer is more like the sculptor: who is unable to “truly” feel “happy or unhappy.”
But it is not so much the “aesthetic filter” that the narrator evokes with respect to Agatha Christie’s sculptor as the pain (not “pleasure”) of surprise (and recognition) that destroys the plot and takes the reader and narrator from the world of love and exoticism (in Thailand) to a world of terror and loss.
The alteration is prompted by something that no modern plot – or our world – could anticipate: terrorism. And this makes sense since Houellebecq wrote this novel after 9/11. To be sure, that missing historical link is crucial. In the wake of this novel, one may be startled to find that terrorism and its alteration of modern life have, in many ways, become the new “platform” for Houellebecq’s modern novels. But what is most shocking is what it leaves the reader with at the end of the novel: a traumatized narrator (and writer) who has, in the wake of terror, lost his ability to truly feel…anything.
We need to ask ourselves whether we, as post 9/11 readers who have seen ISIS and multiple acts of terrorism, experience what I would call the “shock of recognition” in the narrator’s inability to feel…in the wake of trauma. Are we unable to “truly feel anything?” That can only be the case if the terrorist has taken the world we once loved away from us. But it need not be, that is, if the world is still ours. For Houellebecq’s narrator it is not, but we need not agree with him. But, and this is the point, it depends on how we view the world, on the one hand, and how it has been affected by terror, on the other. Can the writer or the reader stand up to terror and “truly” say no?