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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
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Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
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Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten


Plateforme (French Edition) - Michel Houellebecq Plateforme contains a remarkable amount of sex and is inordinately depressing, but it's well-written, engaging and quite often funny. Houellebecq evidently believes that he's watching the last days of Western civilization, if not of humanity as a whole, and he's interested in exploring what went wrong. He thinks that it's something very much to do with how we experience sex, and how the desire for sex acts on us.

So, here we have dull, inert, 40-ish Michel, who hates his job, has no partner or other meaningful relationship, and in fact no interests at all in life. The only thing that he actually enjoys is patronizing the occasional prostitute. When he's able to afford it, he goes off to Thailand for a spot of sex tourism. As he wistfully tells us, Thai prostitutes are the best in the world. I recently read the same thing in another French novel, and for all I know it's true. We get to see a couple of Michel's encounters with Thai massage girls; these scenes were nicely done, and came across as credible. The girls are sympathetically portrayed.

On his trip, Michel meets Valérie, an attractive 28 year old. He doesn't quite manage to respond to her obvious advances, but she gives him her telephone number. Shortly after they get back to Paris, they get together. Things completely click between them.

Michel is at first unsure why Valérie is interested in him. She's young and hot, he's middle-aged and dull. However, she has a secret. She's very successful in her career as a low-ranking executive in a travel agency. After they've been to bed for the first time, she confesses how much she makes; it's a lot more than he does. And she's a workaholic, who puts in eighty hours or so most weeks. This, I imagine, is enough to scare most guys off. But Michel doesn't feel threatened at all. Valérie is enchanted. Though Michel never quite admits it, they are blissfully in love.

So far, I thought the book was surprisingly positive for a Houellebecq, but I should of course have known better. As people do when they're in love, they each try to give each other the thing they want most. Michel's a sex addict, and Valérie, who has a sweet and generous nature, tries to help him live out all the sexual fantasies he's never had a chance to experience. Some of these aren't very tasteful. But, oddly enough, it's what he does for her that's genuinely repulsive. Michel's an insightful thinker, and, as Valérie describes her life working as a strategist at a top-ranking travel agency, he helps her refine a new and logical idea. Many people, like him, really go on the trips to do sex tourism; so why not take the next step, and reorganize the enterprise with that thought explicitly in mind? From now on, you know something bad will eventually happen, and indeed it does.

Houellebecq appears to believe that there is no hope for us at all, but he offers interesting new angles on why that might be. I wish I could immediately say why his arguments were exaggerated and wrong.


So, I feel that no one is buying my arguments about why this book has a worthwhile side to it. Let me give it one last shot.

First, everyone else seems to have read it in English, and I do get the impression from Choupette's comments that the English translation is poor. The French original is elegantly and wittily written. For example, here's a nice passage from an early chapter, which I'm sure will appeal to many GR readers:
Je passai ma dernière journée de congé dans differents agences de voyage. J'aimais les catalogues de vacances, leur abstraction, leur manière de réduire les lieux du monde à une sequence limitée de bonheurs possibles et de tarifs; j'appreciais particulierement le système d'étoiles, pour indiquer l'intensité de bonheur qu'on était en droit d'éspérer.

(I passed my last free day in a few travel agencies. I love the abstract nature of travel brochures, the way in which they reduce the whole world to a finite sequence of possible types of pleasure, and their associated prices; I particularly appreciate the system by which a number of stars is used to indicate the intensity of pleasure one has the right to expect).
You see later that this is not just an empty epigram, but sums up an important part of the book's argument. Similarly, Michel's father's death, though it appears random at the time, is in retrospect important foreshadowing. The novel is in fact quite tightly constructed.

Michel and Valérie are of course monsters, but the poor translation means that you aren't even tempted to sympathize with them. In French, I did want to support them at times. The scene where Michel admits to the other members of his group that he patronizes Thai prostitutes I found for example very funny, and his interlocutor came across as a PC idiot. I'd be interested to know how English readers reacted to this passage.

What I found scary and convincing about Plateforme was the coherent case it made that sex tourism isn't the regrettable exception; rather, it sums up the First World's way of dealing with the Third World. The author also did a lot to show you how the mechanisms worked. Throughout most of the book, I had a hard time accepting Valérie as an evil person. She loves her job, and takes great pleasure in doing it to the best of her ability. Michel loves her, and he wants to help her succeed. But the consequence of that is that they cooperate in building up a gigantic network of prostitution. They know they're doing it, but the logic of the market means that they don't feel they have any choice. They don't see themselves as bad people, and some of the time I found myself accepting their version of reality. I thought that was quite interesting.


I just noticed the ads that Google put next to this review:

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I'm sorry, I must admit that I find that funny.


Some more thoughts. (If a book makes you think this much, can it be all bad?) It seems to me that there is a tight connection between Plateforme and Les Particules Élémentaires, which Houellebecq wrote just before it. In both books, the central theme is an analysis of contemporary sexual behavior from the point of view of Chicago-school economic theory. As another reviewer said, there are many resonances with Naomi Klein's exposition in The Shock Doctrine.

I know, as one might put it, fuck all about economics, but it seems to me that Les Particules primarily takes a macroeconomic view, and argues that Western societies, sexually as well as economically, are becoming stratified, with a substantial proportion of the population relegated to the position of essentially having nothing. Plateforme, on the other hand, appears to be more a micro-economic analysis; it focuses on the individual decisions made by the sexual consumer, and how the aggregate of these many micro-decisions together build up the overall sexual-economic structure.

I find Houellebecq's analysis very interesting, but the assumption I'm least ready to accept is that most men, irrespective of their own age, would now automatically prefer to have sex with young women in the 18-25 age group. Personally, I don't feel that way. I'm afraid, however, that I can't offer any hard evidence against Houellebecq's assertion, and the huge mainstream success of the porn industry does tend to support it.

This does rather take us back to the initial point Choupette made in her review. As she put it:
It reads like the fantasy of some horny middle-aged shit with nothing better to do with his time, like one of those disgusting old men who stares at my legs on the train. It's enough to make a girl wear pants, for goodness' sake.
Well, exactly. Houellebecq's arguing that most men are now like that, except that some of them aren't staring in such an obvious way. But is his claim in fact true? I'd love to see a serious empirical study. Meanwhile, you might want to answer this poll.


Well, I won't pretend that it proves anything... but of the twelve people who have so far answered my poll, not one said that they would prefer their sexual partner to be between 18 and 25. The most popular answers were "25-35" and "Age genuinely doesn't matter to me".

Of course, they could be a very skewed sample. Or they could be lying. Or both. If anyone is able to repeat this experiment using a better methodology, please let me know what you discover!