"For the West, I do not feel hatred. At most I feel a great contempt. I know only that every single one of us reeks of selfishness, masochism, and death. We have created a system in which it has simply become impossible to live, and what's more, we continue to export it."
Houellebecq's plot is a simple demonstration of this thesis, via two genres you hardly expect from him: the murder-mystery and the love story. The book opens with the mystery: the protagonist's father is found with his head bashed in. The death is no tragedy. The protagonist, Michel, quickly admits that he didn't like his father very much. Even this admission is a relief for a reader accustomed to American narratives in which no family relationship can be accepted as shallow or sour, but must be redeemed by a canting, formulaic "epiphany" in which the parent's deathbed becomes the scene of maudlin declarations of love.
The mystery evaporates equally quickly when the killer confesses. He is the brother of the old man's Muslim cleaning woman. He killed the old man when his sister confessed that she'd been having an affair with her employer. Thanks to the decadent French judicial system, the killer will get no more than a suspended sentence for killing an old man -- a dramatic illustration of Houellebecq's conviction that the West has turned on itself.
The discovery of the killer marks the beginning of what is certainly the most sensational aspect of this novel: the explicit loathing and dread of Islam. Houellebecq's view is that the "masochism and death" of the West is clear in its unwillingness to protect itself against the mindless fecundity and zeal of Islam, represented here by the sullen, stupid murderer, despised even by the sister he was supposedly protecting. If you want to skip to the most notorious and extreme expression of this view, the one that got him sued in France, go directly to page 250, where you'll find this: "...I started to follow the international news again. Every time I heard that a Palestinian terrorist, or a Palestinian child or a pregnant Palestinian woman, had been gunned down in the Gaza Strip, I felt a quiver of enthusiasm at the thought of one less Muslim in the world. Yes, it was possible to live like this."
It's a shocking passage, intended as such; yet what's odd is that it's exactly what 200 million Americans feel every night as they watch the news. Yet none of our writers would dream of saying such a thing, unless it was put in the mouth of some obviously discredited maniac.
The love story begins when the murder mystery ends. Michel inherits a big chunk of money from his father and decides to join a tour group: "My dreams are run-of-the-mill. Like all the inhabitants of Western Europe, I want to travel." Not only the dream but the plot-device is "run-of-the-mill," but this banality is rigorous. Houellebecq wants to describe the norm, a task very difficult for post-Romantic poetics to accomplish.
That task is carried out with merciless skill when Michel describes each member of his tour group in portraits so horribly precise you can't help suspecting Houellebecq actually took one of these tours, making careful notes the whole time. Their ordinariness is one of the delights of the book.
Why is it that English-speaking writers can't do ordinariness -- not Eichmann-as-banal-monster but the ordinariness of people just slightly above the norm? We always have to redeem the flat fact with some fake transcendence, or push it into zombie territory. Houellebecq, in the great Flaubertian tradition, fixes his eye on the ordinary and sketches it without mercy or love or any other consoling lies.
The tour group quickly divides into the virtuous Leftists and the few dissidents who intend to take advantage of the opportunity to have sex with gorgeous Thai prostitutes. As always, Houellebecq doesn't make the split mythic or touching; it's simply a trait of the species: "Human groups of more than three people have a tendency, apparently spontaneous, to split into two hostile subgroups." Michel is one of the unashamed hedonists, enjoying and describing in luscious detail his sessions with a beautiful and enthusiastic Thai massage girl. He does a great job of savaging the anti-sex, anti-pleasure attitude of Lonely-Planet style guidebooks: "All in all, these backpacking routards were bellyaching bastards whose goal was to spoil every little pleasure on offer to tourists, whom they despised....The most excruciating thing was probably their stern, dogmatic, peremptory tone, quivering with repressed indignation...they laid into 'potbellied Westerners' who strolled around with little Thai girls; it made them 'literally puke.' Humanitarian Protestant cunts, that's what they were, they and the 'cool bunch of mates who helped to make this book possible,' their nasty little faces smugly plastered all over the back cover."