Frederic Raphael

Unblinking, even for a second

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Michel Houllebecq

Heinemann, pp. 320, £

Some novels are something; others are about something. If fiction is an art, then the former class is more likely to qualify. When, for instance, Lolita is said to be 'about' paedophilia, or at least nymphetolepsy, it becomes aesthetically dubious. Hence admirers insist that Nabokov is using H. Humbert's passion as a metaphor for the Master's onomastic infatuation with America (does anyone accuse Yeats of having validated copulation with swans because he made Leda the subject of a poem?).

Platform has been admired, as was the same author's Atomised, by worthy sponsors. Clearly they detect merits that go beyond the blow-by-blow sexual activity calculated - others might say - to service those who, as Rousseau said, 'read with one hand'. Jonathan Meades compared Platform not only to 'late Nabokov' - Houellebecq does indeed offer an (unacknowledged) clin d'oeil to the 'Venus Villas' which figure in Ada - but also, by virtue of its 'sod-you bravura', to 'the young Martin Amis/middle-period Burgess and, most of all, the De Lillo of Libra'.

Next up, Anita Brookner accuses Platform of being 'a brilliant novel, casting a prescient eye on the abuses and inequalities that lead to wider trouble'. Can this be the same Miss Brookner whose demure astringency issues so regularly in sweet'n'sour studies of lonely people who, by sea or lake, are about to be handbagged by a last slim chance of happiness? Houellebecq is so blatantly in your face (what runs down his heroine's cheeks - and gets gleefully licked off by her - is not tears) that you cannot, at first blush, believe the affinity.

But then check out the following plot. A middle-aged, middle-rank civil servant, in the Ministry of Culture, takes a new lease on life after getting a legacy from his unloved father, who has just been murdered (random violence artfully prefigured?). He goes on a package tour to Thailand where he almost musters the courage to chat up an attractive young woman in his party. Only when it is all but over does he dare solicit her telephone number. Sweet! They meet again in Paris; an affair promptly follows. ValZrie is in the travel business. Michel, disenchanted with administering grants to crap artists, is intrigued by her company's involvement in plans for a sort of oriental Club Bed, which will supply upmarket horizontal holidays for jaded Westerners. The happy couple become high-class reps in the booming new company. Then - but wouldn't it? - tragedy strikes. Michel is bereft, but he has changed. Armed to confront mortality tout seul and en face, he dumps humbugging old Europe and, living towards death, settles for a modestly pensioned Stoic/hedonist existence on a distant shore.

Could this not, mutatis mutandis, serve as a maquette for one of Miss Brookner's wry studies of life's after-dinner mintiness? The colour applied by Houellebecq - the name is pronounced, of course, like my late grandmother's telephone exchange, WELbeck - is more lurid. It will not surprise the avertis that the descriptions of sexual activity have no Nabokovian archness about them. As the chefs say, go