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Michel is a civil-servant at the Ministry of Culture. When his father is murdered, Michel takes a leave of absence to go on a package tour to Thailand. Infuriated by the shallow hypocrisy and mediocrity of his fellow travellers, only the awkward Valerie attracts his attention. Too bashful to pursue her, Michel prefers the uncomplicated pleasures of Thai massage parlours and sex with local women.
Back in Paris, he calls Valerie and they plunge into a passionate affair, which strays into S&M, partner-swapping and sex in public. Michel quits his job, and tries to help Valerie and her boss, Jean-Yves, in their ailing travel business, by offering travel packages based on sex tourism in the third world. When their project comes to fruition and the three return to Thailand, Michel discovers that sex is neither the most consuming nor the most dangerous of human passions...
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 Val rie, 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 Val rie, 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). Val rie 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.