A much darker version of a similar thing permeates Platform(Knopf),Michel Houellebecq's vivid new media-bait of a novel. His misanthropic stand-in, also named Michel, takes the money left him by his brutally murdered father and runs off to Thailand. Accompanied by a head full of embittered rants (he rails against both German johns and — plumping for a fatwa — Islamic crazies), he joins a tour group but is quickly repulsed by his compatriots who complain how "everything is touristy." Michel's all for tourism, but his own particular kind: recreational sex. At Bangkok's Temple of Dawn, he makes mental notes to buy cheap Viagra; passing Thailand's rubber plantations, he thinks: condoms. Ironically, he falls in love, not with a Thai hooker but with Valerie, who's French — precisely the kind of Western woman he went halfway around the world to avoid. After copious copulation, they decide to take their romance to another level by setting up sex clubs catering to Europeans in Thailand.
The book ends with a horrific deus ex machina, with which Houellebecq seems to predict the impending end of the narcissist's reverie. Michel and Valerie's sexual-romantic utopia isn't destroyed from within, as were the sun-kissed backpackers in The Beach. Paradise is literally blown to bits by Islamic terrorists, people who are eager to break on through to the other side. For all we know, Houellebecq's vision of tourist apocalypse could be the first step toward an even newer breed of travel writing — one taking into account our wary, sweaty-palmed post-9/11, post-Bali bombing universe. The Fifth World, perhaps, where people only dream of traveling.