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'Platform' shocks, as it offers insight

Platform, by Michel Houellebecq. Translated from the French by Frank Wynne. Knopf. 272 pages. $25.

Toward the end of this mordant misadventure in international sex tourism, the narrator of Platform begins emerging from catatonic emotional detachment to consider alternative ways of being. Imagine: Love. Heavens: A wife? Mon Dieu: children.

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Not to worry about these horrors. No way such reassurance winds up in a book by French novelist Michel Houellebecq, at least not at this point in the writer's career. At 45 he's too old for the status of enfant terrible, but he pays homage to Charles Baudelaire's insistence on shocking the bourgeoisie.

With Platform, his third novel, Houellebecq shows no sign of diminished disgust with the human project in general, global capitalism in particular, nor less penchant for explicit sex and ethnic slurs.

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The approach has so far made Houellebecq (WELL-beck) a sensation in France, where he won the 1998 Prix Novembre for his second novel, The Elementary Particles. He's renowned both for his writing -- astute, graceful, sexually preoccupied, occasionally alarming -- and his persona -- hard-drinking, anti-social, sexually preoccupied, occasionally alarming. His October 2000 interview with The New York Times Magazine featured the writer getting drunk, trying to seduce the female reporter and passing out face down in his dinner plate.

Platform should advance Houellebecq's reputation for eviscerating the cultural moment, and for carrying grudges against Muslims. Last fall, the writer was acquitted by a Paris court of charges that he incited racial hatred in an interview by calling Islam "the most stupid religion."

In Platform, set in France and Thailand, Muslims are the objects of diatribes. It's also a Muslim who kills the narrator's father, and Muslim terrorists who attack a Thai sex resort.

Yet, a passing acquaintance with his dead father's Islamic housekeeper and lover prompts Renault to acknowledge "the attractions of the Muslim vagina."

Such is the depth of Renault's obsession with female anatomy. The 40-year-old unmarried man says his enthusiasm for the female pudenda has never dimmed: "In fact, I saw in it one of my few remaining recognizable, fully human qualities. As for the rest, I didn't really know anymore."

On vacation in Thailand, Renault -- an arts ministry bureaucrat -- meets Valerie, a travel agent whose sexual abandon approaches his own. It happens they live near each other in France. Doings ensue.

What, the dysphoric Renault experiencing love? Well, at least his sexual preoccupation with Valerie becomes rather tender. His account of watching her preparing to leave for a business meeting, dressed in her "corporate seductress" ensemble, is a memorable erotic anthem.

Passages like that encourage you to stay with Houellebecq, who stumbles in this book on some matters of narrative plausibility and point of view. Still, I wanted to keep reading for insights. Like Don DeLillo, Houellebecq rewards with glimpses through his particularly keen lens.

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Houellebecq is no ideologue and Platform is no polemic. Beneath the detachment and expletives, however, lie questions about the human cost of capital enterprise on a grand scale. Says Renault: "We have created a system in which it has simply become impossible to live, and what's more, we continue to export it."

Arthur Hirsch has been a feature writer at The Sun for 13 years. Before this he worked as a reporter, columnist, editor and free-lance writer for New England newspapers, magazines and radio stations. He is currently a member of the adjunct writing faculty at the Johns Hopkins University.


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