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Michel Houellebecq, Author , trans. from the French by Frank Wynne. Knopf $25 (272p) ISBN 978-0-375-41462-6

Controversially and unsuccessfully charged in France under hate crimes laws, Houellebecq insinuates anti-Islamic themes ("Every time that I heard that a Palestinian terrorist, or... a pregnant Palestinian woman, had been gunned down in the Gaza Strip, I felt a quiver of enthusiasm....") into a rather simple love story in his most recent novel (after The Elementary Particles). Michel, a 40-year-old bachelor, is a civil servant working in the Ministry of Culture. He falls for Valérie, a woman he first meets on a group tour vacation to Thailand. The point of his trip—which he pays for with money that he inherits when his father is murdered by the Muslim brother of his father's cleaning lady/lover—is to see if Thai prostitutes are as pretty, expert and reasonable as he imagines. They are. He makes various acidulous observations about others in the group (not to their faces—he confesses to not being able to talk to people), but is attracted to Valérie, who looks stunning in a bikini. He calls on her in Paris, falls into bed with her and soon they are having sex on trains and street corners (sometimes joined by interested bystanders). Valérie works for Aurore, a multinational hotel and resort chain. She and Michel persuade her boss, Jean-Yves Frochot, to invest in sex tourism resorts, but the plan goes terribly awry because of a terrorist attack by puritanical Islamic fanatics on a resort in Thailand. Houellebecq is one of those writers, like Ayn Rand, for whom concept always precedes character. His general thesis is that a liberal, hypocritical elite is presiding over the spiritual bankruptcy of the West and retreating from the one Enlightenment idea that is still valid: hedonism. Only the sensations of the body have any worth—hence, the utopian value of sex tourism. Again like Rand, Houellebecq somehow produces an effect of myth in spite of his clumsy language and contrived plots. This is an important book, a rare must-read for anyone who wants to take the measure of contemporary European discontents. (July 18)

Forecast:Houellebecq was profiled in the New York Times Magazine when his last book came out, making him one of few contemporary French writers to receive this honor in recent years. Expect major review coverage.

Reviewed on: 06/09/2003
Release date: 00/00/0000
Paperback - 320 pages - 978-0-09-943788-8
Paperback - 272 pages - 978-1-4000-3026-2
Paperback - 316 pages - 978-84-339-6766-4
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