A very strange novel not least because it must be one of the only novels that takes place in the context of the tourism industry. However, lest that conjure up images of dad helping the kids build sandcastles while mum kicks back on the sunlounger with a pina colada, Houellebecq’s characters are passionate about sex tourism.
The self-absorbed Michel (how’d he come up with that name?) narrates his experiences of a relationship with a travel company executive he meets while servicing his needs at the expense of the women of Thailand. This relationship takes on two dimensions, the first of which is sex. The second, much less important dimension, is his role in providing ideas for her career move creating a series of resorts catering specifically to sex tourism.
Naturally, their growing sex empire draws the attention of those who are less tolerant of these things and the novel ends with an Islamic terrorist attack on a resort which kind of puts future punters off.
The novel was criticised for being critical of Islam, but critics were forced to admit that however distasteful the novel was, it was at least prescient; it was publised just weeks before 9/11 and a year before the Bali bombings which may well have been inspired by it.
However, if you’re not a fan of writers obsessed with sex, this isn’t for you. Houellebecq seems to get off on writing about it if not doing it. It’s amazing what inner insecurities are revealed by our obsessions. Reading up on his life on the web it was no surprise to discover that he felt his mother “lost interest in his existence.” The obsession with sex is typical of a man with a wound caused by lack of early connections to a female caregiver.
Sadly, writers like Houellebecq can’t seem to make any connections between the sex they create and the plots they are also constructing. Maybe that’s because the sex they’re actually having has no connection to the life they’re living. Everything is humdrum and then suddenly everyone’s clothes are off and the sex is the best anyone’s ever experienced since we were given legs to walk on. Yeah, right. My only hope is that Houellebecq is a satirist on par with Sterne or Swift.
I haven’t got the faintest idea what Houellebecq wanted the world to do with this novel. Maybe he just wanted to keep the legacy of J. G. Ballard alive. If so, lamentably, he succeeded to some degree. I’m supposed to also read his Elementary Particles off the 1001 books list. Not sure I’ll bother.