Sex tourism

The "most exciting writer in Europe" is back. Gerry Feehily, in Paris, reads Michel Houellebecq's <e

Michel Houellebecq is back, and his new novel, Plateforme, has already come under vehement attack. Since the publication of Atomised in 1998, Houellebecq has been not only the most prominent of French authors, but also the most controversial, not least for his unconventional opinions on the sexual revolution. Often overlooked, however, is how he grants his fictional characters the freedom to contradict his own pet theories, finding fulfilment as they do in the type of sexual liberalism he seems to denounce. Full of such novelistic contradictions, Plateforme (not available in English until September next year) is a baffling study of sex tourism and a moral examination of the consequences of globalisation.

A 40-year-old administrator at the Ministry of Culture, Michel, our narrator, is a loser in the sex wars, "more or less resigned to a boring life". He spends sozzled evenings at peep-shows, or alone at home mesmerised by cable TV, but his luck begins to turn after the death of his philandering father, whom he buries with the words "you old bastard". With a sizeable inheritance, he leaves for Thailand on a package holiday, where, in between encounters with Thai prostitutes - "the best lovers in the world" - he meets Valerie, an executive working in the tourist industry.

On returning to Paris, Michel discovers that the bisexual Valerie has a capacity for self-abandonment he believed possible only in the Orient. Generous and maternal, she provides him with a kind of happiness, the nature of which, as is often the case in Houellebecq's fiction, lies in sex free of moral constraint.

The main impediment to the happiness of Michel and Valerie, as it unfolds for well over a third of the novel, is the latter's exhausting work schedule. Hired to transform the El Doreador, a loss-making subsidiary of the tour company Aurore, Valerie struggles to come up with the holiday package that will give her an edge over the global competition. Meanwhile, in the suburbs surrounding the company's air-conditioned tower, social anarchy, analogous to the individualistic anarchy of the market, prevails. As fearful of the streets as they are for their jobs, Aurore's stifled employees are left to wonder "as to the utility of this world being built".

After a trip to a ruined Cuba, Michel believes he has found the solution to Valerie's problems: a package holiday where lonely westerners pay for favours spent in the arms of third-world inhabitants with "nothing to sell but their bodies, and their intact sexuality. It's an ideal exchange." Although the creation of "Aphrodite Clubs" in Thailand is an instant success, no one had reckoned with the puritan fervour of Islamic fundamentalists from neighbouring Malaysia. As often in Houellebecq, the end, like the beginning, is despair.

Such a premise may be uncomfortable, but it possesses its own curious logic. Something of an industrial adventure, a skewed airport novel full of boardroom scenes and exotic locations, Plateforme seeks to demythologise the glamour of globalisation, suggesting that if a non-productive west exploits a third-world industrial base, a global division of sexual labour cannot be far behind. To label it "misogynist filth", as has the French editor of a popular travel guide on Thailand, is to misunderstand the novel. Although Plateforme is narrated in a deadpan, almost sociological style, which confuses the distinction between fiction and prescription, Houellebecq's intention here is patently satirical, moral even; the novel pushes its themes to the limits of the absurd.

This said, the book has its shortcomings, not least because, as Houellebecq's fame grows, an entire cult of personality, indeed an industry, forms around him, at the expense of a coherent artistic vision. Full of perfunctory, deliberately flat descriptions of Thailand, and often slapdash disquisitions on Islam, prostitution and sexuality, Plateforme, with a reproving editor, a rewrite, plus a little more time, might have been a brisker, leaner work. Despite this, it remains an unsettling novel, at odds and yet tuned into the modern world. Few authors can convey the way it feels to be alive today with quite the same demented energy.

Gerry Feehily is a critic living in Paris