Michel Houellebecq is a novelist of the void. As a disillusioned former communist who has lost all belief in human progress, he writes about the vacuity, boredom and drift of modern consumerism. He understands that the purpose of capitalism is endlessly to stimulate desires that can never be fulfilled, which means we are condemned to live in a state of constant, restless dissatisfaction. He understands, too, the flimsiness of the self's construction, and how so few - if any - of us are free ever to become the people we wish to be.
Lanzarote is a peculiar book. It is not quite an unconventional travelogue, nor is it fiction in any recognisable form. It reads more like random diary observations, or perhaps a long, hastily written e-mail to a close friend, or perhaps even as something that might have been written by Alain de Botton in the immediate aftermath of a long night spent experimenting with alcohol and Viagra: not only does the narrator sound like Houellebecq - ironic, amused, scabrous, ridiculous - but he shares most of his prejudices, too. There are, for instance, the now-familiar attacks on Islam and Anglo-Saxons, and there is the wild, comic misanthropy and the pornography. What is new (and rather delightful) is the contempt for Scandinavia and, in particular, for Norwegians.
The set-up is simple. A bored middle-aged Parisian, seeking some sun in January but short of money, is encouraged by a travel agent to visit Lanzarote. On arriving there, he is thrilled by the artificiality of this holiday island (though he is less impressed by its many fat, pale-skinned visitors from northern Europe) and by the colours and remoteness of its volcanic interior, which he describes with a kind of naive rapture.
The book is illustrated with Houellebecq's own photographs of the difficult and forbidding volcanic landscape of Lanzarote. What is missing from the photographs, however, is people - which is a shame, because our narrator, on his travels across the island, meets two German lesbians, with whom he enjoys extravagant sex acts, and a Belgian police inspector called Rudi who, spurning the opportunity of group sex, disappears to join a religious cult that is later implicated in a paedophile scandal back home in Belgium. Well, this is Houellebecq, after all.
Sex is Houellebecq's revolutionary signature as a writer. It is the means through which his jaded last men affirm their often squalid existences. But sex in Houellebecq, as in Freud, is inseparable from death; it is a force of liberation and of destruction, and though it may provide release from the burden of self-consciousness, it can offer no lasting happiness.
For Julian Barnes, writing recently in the New Yorker, Houellebecq is a pornographer because his sex scenes, in which nothing ever goes wrong, are as choreographed and stylised as any skin flick - erections are gloriously true and firm, and the women are always complicit, ever eager to engage in threesomes with, say, an illiterate and conveniently placed Thai maid.
But Houellebecq is not a realist; he is a programmatic writer, a thinker who begins with a thesis and ideas, and then seeks to dramatise them in a series of increasingly unreal situations. You read him, therefore, not to be drugged by narrative, but to be exhilarated by his insight into, and understanding of, the defining conflicts and tensions of the present. As the narrator of Lanzarote observes, impressively, when reflecting on the disintegration of Rudi: "Deep down, I understood the choice Rudi had made. That said, he was wrong about one thing: it's perfectly possible to live without expecting anything of life; in fact, it's the common way. In general people stay at home, they're happy that the phone never rings, and when it does, they let the answering machine pick up. No news is good news."
Lanzarote was published in France in 2000, and can be read as a precursor to Plateforme (2001). In the earlier work, Houellebecq experiments with many of the themes and ideas that find more convincing expression in that later novel about Islamic extremism and a middle-aged Parisian sex tourist in Thailand. Lanzarote should not be taken too seriously; it is a very minor offering from a great writer whose best work, I fear, is already behind him. What lies ahead for Houellebecq is the corruption of celebrity, debauchery and, above all, further boredom.