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Thursday, 12 September, 2002, 08:42 GMT 09:42 UK
Houellebecq plays the same hand
Mr Houellebecq
Houellebecq has won the Impac prize and Prix Novembre

Trailing extravagant praise, a whiff of scandal and a Paris court case for "inciting racial hatred", Michel Houellebecq's new novel is his first since the writer won the 62,000 Impac literary prize.

Containing many of his favourite themes - European decadence, social change and sex - Platform packs an even harder satirical punch than his previous novel Atomised, which managed to combine a scathing attack on sexual liberalism with shockingly explicit sexual scenes.

The French novelist has fashioned a flat, matter-of-fact style to tell his sour tales of alienation and despair.

In fact the flatness of the writing style borders on carelessness, and in places has the feeling of a first draft about it.

Atomised created scandal - and won literary prizes
Atomised created scandal - and won literary prizes
Coupled with the unattractiveness of some of Houellebecq's opinions - he seems to enjoy baiting feminists and anti-racists - this is a book one suspects many will fail to finish.

But there is undeniably something very exciting about Houellebecq, something to do with the very recklessness of his ideas.

In Platform, he pursues the idea that sex tourism is a positive good - good for a Europe neurotic about sex, and good for the Third World as a source of income.

His narrator - called Michel, like his creator - has the idea of creating a travel company openly dedicated to sex tourism after a trip to Thailand.

With his girlfriend and another travel operator they begin to set up a world network of "Aphrodite" clubs and success seems assured.

But back in Thailand they find the openness of their venture has antagonised Muslim guerrillas from neighbouring Malaysia, who attack their hotel and murder more than 100 guests, including Michel's girlfriend.

Platform cover
The shock value may be running out
The narrative gives the novel's characters ample opportunity to criticise what they see as Islam's sexual illiberalism, in terms which have already angered some prominent Muslims in France.

But a Houellebecq novel which did not create a scandal would probably be seen as a failure.

The real failure of Platform is a literary one - a dearth of really deep, plausible characters and the lack of a moral centre.

The reader tends to assume that Houellebecq's fantasy has a satirical purpose, but by the end of the book one is not wholly sure.

And there is an adolescent quality to the frequent descriptions of sex in the book: women never have periods and are always willing, men are never impotent - and no one ever gets a sexually transmitted disease.

So far Houellebecq's audaciousness and willingness to antagonise has made him a must-read contemporary author.

But after selling three novels on shock value, there is a sense of diminishing returns.

He could work harder at the old-fashioned virtues - plot, character, style - but one wonders if he cares.

"Art cannot change lives," the narrator of Platform reflects at one point, "at least not mine".

Platform is published by Williams Heinemann, part of the Random House group.

See also:

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