on Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory.
Plot (I) Detail, 2010 map, acrylic, pins, adhesive, paper © Shannon Rankin
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From Cocks to Corpses
The Map and the Territory
Transl. by Gavin Bowd
Knopf, January 2012. 288 pp.
While Michel Houellebecq has inveighed against critics reading the writing of other critics in lieu of his books themselves, it’s hard to view the appearance in the United States of The Map and the Territory without the novel’s reception flickering over its surface. Billed as a satire of the contemporary-art world, the book won the Prix Goncourt when published in France two years ago, and Houellebecq was praised for demonstrating a new “maturity.” On the one hand this seemed promising: Houellebecq’s M.O. is to plunge the reader into a universe just slightly off from the one we are used to — the swinger lifestyle and molecular biology; sex tourism; standup comedy, cults, and clones. The esoteric, high-rolling milieu of high art would give him ample opportunity to exercise his gifts for caustic comedy, his appetite for decadence, and his gloomy meditations on global capitalism. On the other hand, however, the idea of a “mature” Houellebecq, one palatable enough to win prizes, is enough to put a reader in mind of Martin Scorsese’s Oscar for The Departed, or Cormac McCarthy’s National Book Award for All the Pretty Horses. Has the vision been lightened, the crucial ugliness purged? The U.S.-based fan has thus been on edge for months, rubbing hands in anticipation, worrying that it’ll all turn out to be a sham, a sellout.
For its first two-thirds, The Map and the Territory will be broadly familiar to readers of Houellebecq: a day-after-tomorrow setting, a globalization-induced dysphoria, brand names, technical details, philosophical musings. From a mostly limited third-person perspective, the book tracks the life of artist Jed Martin. Jed is slightly built and somewhere between reticent and autistic, devoted to his work but lacking the romantic fire one would traditionally associate with that sort of monomania. He lives in Paris but has no pastimes beyond shopping at the hypermarché, and he has little in the way of an inner life. His social relations are equally etiolated. He sees his aging father, a retired architect, perhaps twice a year. His best friend is a tetchy boiler. And he becomes, in stages, an enormous success.
The last section of the book, however, begins with a leap into a new setting and, for Houellebecq, a new genre: the detective story. In a quaint home in a country village, a man and his dog are decapitated. Inch by inch their flesh is cut into long ribbons with surgical precision and strewn around the living room like bloody pappardelle. In case it’s slipped anyone’s mind, we are reminded we are in the realm of French letters when, on arriving at the crime scene, the detective assigned to the case finds his chief junior officer sprawled on the grass outside, reading Aurélia by Gérard de Nerval.
To make his inspection of this grand guignol, the detective, Jasselin, borrows the sophisticated breathing equipment of the forensics team despite his disdain for the unit, who gather their evidence with what he considers an unearned arrogance, vested in technologies to which they themselves have contributed nothing. Clad in their gear, he parts the open door’s curtain of flies. “From a fly’s point of view a human corpse is meat, pure and simple,” Jasselin thinks. “If he were going to assess the crime scene without going to pieces, he should, he was clearly aware, adopt the fly’s point of view for a few minutes: the remarkable objectivity of the housefly, Musca domestica.”
So begins the movement toward denouement, with characteristic Houellebecq tropes in a skillful and savage new deployment: anxiety about technology’s displacement of the human coupled with dependency on it; an affinity for the terminological (that dash of Latin in the taxonomic name); a face-to-face with the horrors of the body. Houellebecq displays great aptitude for the detective story, which allows him to get at some of his fundamental concerns. The contemporary police procedural, for example, the modus of CSI ad nauseam, replaces the individual sleuth with the team, and Houellebecq nods to this generational shift with a swift description of Jasselin’s squad, each member given a perfectly one-note aspect. There’s the poetry-reading Ferber, the jovial Lartigue, the dynamic Aurélie, the rookie Messier, and the ethnic Khoury; they lean heavily on the hard-drives-cracking techies and those jerks in forensics, too. The Sam Spades (or if you prefer, Maigrets) of the world are long extinct; no solo operator could command the complex array of analytic and technical tools that solving a crime today requires. The individual is demoted, busted down to buck private, or its equivalent in the gendarmerie.
This loss in status is not limited to the police force, of course; it reflects the entrenchment of corporate structures, and subsequent derogation of the individual, in all aspects of life. Few novelists address this problem more thoroughly than Houellebecq. Here, Jasselin is that figure so common to crime stories, the cop on the verge of retirement, and his reflections on his fate extend well beyond disdain for geeks in hazmat suits. “He implicitly knew, and at their bimonthly interview his division commander sometimes made this explicit, that what was expected from him was now no longer solving crimes, but rather designating his successors, coopting those who, after him, should solve them,” Houellebecq writes. Coopting. Such a curious choice of words, with the association of taking something up and putting it toward vitiating ends. Earlier in the novel, another character makes explicit note of a fact Houellebecq has long insisted on, that humans have become akin to products. And so, as with other goods, our obsolescence has been planned; the system requires it.
These conditions perfectly suit a Houellebecqian take on the whodunit. Mystery is an archetypal modern genre, in part because its compass is the attempt to get to the bottom of the self, which, in the post-Freud, post-Nietzsche, post-Marx way we understand it, is a construct of modern times. Crime requires motive, and motive requires wants and desires (for storytellers, the more tangled the better). Mystery, then, requires psychology; it requires a strong, highly articulated self. In postmodernity, the argument goes, capitalism has surpassed its initial need to have us highly individuated for its function; it has progressed to a point of greater efficiency, whereby instead of expressing unique selves through our consumer choices, we are presented with a set of programmed options and pick from among them. Our selves are merely coarse nets of preference through which an increasingly regressive and benumbed sentience flows. It would appear that, in Houellebecq’s view, explaining crimes requires recourse neither to childhood traumas nor pure evil; rather, such acts are almost invariably utilitarian. Looking back on 30 years as a cop, Jasselin asks himself, “How many times, in that career, had he dealt with a crime that wasn’t motivated by money?” Answer: “He could count them on the fingers of one hand.”
If this all sounds a bit depressing — or, alternatively, a bit overstated — don’t worry; there’s always the sex and the slurs, right? In Houellebecq, the grandiose theorizing tends to fall into place as a backdrop for the shock. That’ll take our minds off things for a while. So bring on the sex-resort suicide bombers, the spine-snapping gang-bangs. Their satanic majesties request the Palestinian orgy sluts.
Request denied. The Map and the Territory really is, as has been advertised, different from Houellebecq’s other books. In my checklist of Houellebecqian commonplaces above, you may have noticed that I omitted “acute bigotry” and “hardcore sex”; that was no oversight. While the book’s not free of squirmy moments for liberal types, there are far fewer than usual, and though hardly sexless, the book is decidedly less licentious than any other novel the author has written. Jed has two girlfriends in the course of the book, one a knockout who turns tricks to work her way through college (maintaining Houellebecq’s signal obsession with prostitutes) and who eventually leaves him for a rich john, the other a glamorous and accomplished Russian (maintaining a running interest in Slavic women) described as “one of the five most beautiful women in Paris.” Their relationship embodies a perfect synergy of the artistic, commercial, and amatory: she works for Michelin and brokers the company’s promotion of Jed’s breakthrough work, a series of exquisite large-scale photographs of maps. Michelin also cuts their relationship short when a promotion sends her back to Moscow.
What’s almost astonishing is that, with an Amazonian beauty at his disposal, Houellebecq leaves the physical relationship between Olga and Jed entirely to the imagination; aside from the line, “Jed softly caressed her round white buttocks,” all we see are a few tender kisses. Before and after her, Jed has a few encounters with escorts, b ut the nuts and bolts are never shown; like The Elementary Particles’ scientist Djerszinski, Jed is largely indifferent to sex. Beyond the wan experiences of our hero, there are a few dirty lines around his publicist, a mousy woman whose life is transformed by vacations to Jamaica where, she says, guys “fucked my brains out”; a well-deployed pair of fake boobs; and a hilarious, sadistic use of the ungainly (poorly translated?) phrase “sperm shower.” Houellebecq is still Houellebecq. But these tiny outbursts do little to color the book overall, and he leaves pornographic assault on the senses out of his paintbox as he renders the spectacle of dehumanization that unfolds around us every day.
So what fills the void left by the excision of sex and outrage? Death, neat. Insofar as The Map and the Territory might represent Houellebecq’s vaunted “maturation” — a factor in its winning the Goncourt — the key development is swapping fucking for dying, orgies and Pattaya brothels for old-age homes and murder scenes. A key plotline is Jed’s father’s aging; he and his son have never been more than distant, seeming to meet only for Christmas dinner. His diagnosis of rectal cancer is conveyed midway through the book with the news that Dad will soon need an artificial anus — Houellebecqian cruelty, squared. We are treated also to a diabolically banal suicide clinic next door to a brothel; to airless old-age homes; to Jed’s mother killing herself when he’s a child. Themes of mortality resound from Chapter One, page one, with a mention that Jed’s earliest drawings in childhood were of flowers. “The beauty of flowers is sad because they are fragile and destined for death, like anything on earth, of course, but flowers are particularly fragile, and like animals their corpse is only a grotesque parody of their vital being, and their corpse, like that of an animal, stinks.” Houellebecq can find the doom in the crayon sketches a parent puts up on a fridge.
With this paradigmatic substitution — cocks to corpses — The Map and the Territory makes it more clear than ever that extreme sex, outlandish misogyny, or insidious homophobia are all devices Houellebecq’s characters rely on to keep themselves from throwing themselves into the abyss. One of the book’s few anxiously un-PC moments is an odd interlude with a couple of gay restaurateurs over semi-cooked lobster and caraway soufflé. At first the scene seems to exist primarily to lampoon a well known French TV personality, married in real life to a much younger former beauty queen, by discussing his putative homosexuality; it leaves one with (sorry) a bad taste in one’s mouth. But this adolescent jibe is paired with a dramatization of the indignities of getting old:
Anthony had put on a bit of weight since their last visit, as was no doubt inevitable; the secretion of testosterone diminishes with age, the level of fat increases; he was reaching the critical age… .The couple’s aging alienates them doubly: first from the young, who view them with near terror, as if death itself were a communicable disease, and second from their own sense of who they are. If you define yourself as a horndog, and horndogs can only be young, who are you when you get old? There goes the self again. The implicit analogy is between this older generation’s gay subculture, for whom sex occupied a more central role in identity’s construction, and an increasingly hypersexualized general culture. There goes the self for everybody.
“In the traditional gay scene, they didn’t find it glamorous enough to go into cuisine. For them it was homey, it was too homey, precisely that!” Jed suddenly intuited that Georges was also addressing Anthony’s emerging rolls of fat, that he was beginning to miss an obscure, pre-culinary leather-and-chains past, that it would be best to change the subject.
In a 2010 interview in The Paris Review, Houellebecq was blunt about what he found to be the most unspeakable prejudice in our society — “hatred for old people.” “The thing we value most of all is youth,” he went on, “which means that life automatically becomes depressing, because life consists, on the whole, of getting old.” And old age doesn’t just kill you, it kills who you are.
Despite the novel’s advance billing, there’s not really that much about the art world in The Map and the Territory. From a writer who routinely cooks up cult-religion retreats, worlds of clones, sex camps, etc., you would anticipate trips on collector’s yachts (monokinis!), an excursion to the Venice Biennale or Art Basel (gallery simps!), a run-in with a cranky critic on the sidelines of an orgy (an orgy!). But all that appears to fall outside the sphere of the author’s interests. To the degree that he satirizes any milieu, it is not the international art world but that of the French media elite. (This bait-and-switch may represent an acid commentary on the relative primacy of the two spheres, or make an unhappy equation.) Rather than invent new characters or go the roman à clef route, The Map and the Territory makes use of real-life personages, which gives the book’s sprinkling of caricatures (most admittedly lost on U.S. readers) a whetted edge. In addition to that fictionally gay TV personality Jean-Pierre Pernaut, there is media baron Patrick Le Lay (depicted as an ego-bloated drunk); news reader Claire Chazal; Houellebecq’s own editor, Teresa Cremisi; and art critic Patrick Kéchichian (depicted as a religious nut who pens “Jesus-freak shit” in praise of Jed’s oeuvre). The writer Fréderic Beigbeder, who makes a few appearances in the course of the novel, is portrayed as a hysterical coke fiend and called “a sort of Sartre of the 2010s.” Given that he is a real-life friend of Houellebecq’s, the mockery is presumably in good fun.
The author reels in one more figure of note from the real world: the renowned, controversial French author Michel Houellebecq. When Jed completes his crowning achievement, a cycle of paintings depicting the range of human professions in the early twenty-first century, his gallerist suggests he solicit Houellebecq to contribute an essay to the catalogue. Despite having never read his books, Jed becomes quickly taken with him, and thus Houellebecq becomes the attendant spirit of the book’s middle third.
And who is this Michel Houellebecq? He is mercurial, by turns neurotic or even phobic, but also coy and intellectually lively; then horrendously depressed; then vigorous and tranquil once he moves back to the French countryside of his childhood. He drinks moderately, or obliteratingly; he offers disquisitions on Fourier and de Tocqueville as well as obscure figures like the vituperative novelist Jean-Louis Curtis; he weeps over the discontinuation of his favorite outerwear and cultivates bourgeois pastimes like small-potatoes oenophilia: “You do have to be interested in something in life,” he says. “I find it helps.” He is both charming and despondent. He displays a surprising sentimentality toward fellow mammals: the slaughter of pigs should not be allowed, he tells Jed upon meeting him. By the next visit, however, encountered in the depths of depression that keeps him drunk, unwashed, and pajama-clad all day, emptied packages of salumi litter the place, bits of mortadella fleck his bedsheets. “I’ve relapsed,” he moans. “I’ve completely relapsed into charcuterie.”
After a move from isolation in Ireland to his childhood home in the Loiret, this Houellebecq-Bardot adopts a dog, Plato, for whom he professes a philosophical admiration: “A dog already carries within it … a representation of the world,” he propounds, in clever reference to the allegory of the cave. And it is with this vessel of representation that he is killed.
You will forgive me, I hope, dear reader, for thus far playing coy: the victim of that vile murder, whose body is hashed together with that of his pet, is Michel Houellebecq. Whose name means little either to the flies or to Inspector Jasselin, remediated by his deputy:
At his superior’s lack of reaction, he explained, “He’s a writer. Well, he was a writer. He was very well known.”This final bit of self-mortification on the author’s part well, there is also the funeral, whose directors are revealed to have cheaply dumped the scraps of Houellebecq’s body into a child’s coffin caps off a complex self-portrait. From the first it resounds with mockery, but of whom? The real-life Houellebecq has frequently complained about being caricatured in the press, but he has also acknowledged a complicity in this caricaturing. Readers never seem to know quite how to take him, how much is serious and how much is comic, how much is the thoughtful advancing of propositions and how much is classic French provocation-cum-argument. In The Map and the Territory, the author seems to have enjoyed creating a version of himself that alternates between a hilarious fulfillment of stereotype and a refusal of it. Is this an attack on the press or a reprimand to the reader who might buy into their clichés? Is he simply trying the best he can to give a well rounded portrayal of who he thinks he is? Or is he saying that the feedback loop of public and private identity makes it impossible to distinguish the real from its representations? What was the title of this book again?
Ah, well, the famous writer was now a nutritional support for numerous maggots, thought Jasselin.
Houellebecq’s handling of himself as a character, as well as his use of French media-industry figures, underscores a fundamental point about contemporary identity: One must achieve a distance from oneself in order to achieve a self. This might sound like something from Lacan, but one need do no more than murmur “Facebook,” “YouTube,” or “blog” to suggest the phenomenon’s new, hyper-contemporary dimensions. The author Houellebecq often refers to his fictional avatar not by name but with such designations as “the author of Platform” and “the poet of The Pursuit of Happiness.” He does the same with his friend Beigbeder — “the author of 99 Francs,” “the author of A French Novel.” If identity is just an amalgam of data tags, better they exist in a cybernetic relation with a public that constantly reaffirms them. Celebs are just another of Houellebecq’s beloved brand-name items, their self-objectification morphing readily into self-love. As Jed’s art dealer observes, it’s no accident that he becomes rich and famous for his Professions series, since it includes numerous depictions of the wealthy and the powerful — i.e., the very class of consumers who buy artworks that start at €500. Jean-Pierre Pernault, whom we eventually meet in person, tells Jed he tried to buy his own portrait, only to be outbid by billionaire and luxury-good magnate François Pinault.
All Houellebecq’s books cast author figures as their leading men. In The Map and the Territory he cuts out the middleman by casting himself. That brings the book’s count to two, Jed being a societally estranged, creatively inclined Houellebecq protagonist par excellence. A similar setup anchored The Elementary Particles — not coincidentally, perhaps, Houellebecq’s best book other than this one — where the yin/yang main characters are brothers. Here the pair’s characterizations are less dichotomous and their relationship surprising, mostly in that it develops at all. The Houellebecq character fails to resolve entirely and is interpersonally opaque, but Jed feels stirrings of a real connection nevertheless. It’s the sort of thing he’s never experienced, not even with Olga. Like a lover, he gushes to Houellebecq: “You’ve become important for me, and what’s more … that’s happened so quickly!” Later, on the day of the Professions vernissage, which he assumes (correctly) that the writer will not attend, he thinks wistfully of his fellow devotee of prepackaged foods and granular data while killing time in a grocery store: “How nice it would have been to visit this refurbished Casino hypermarket together, to nudge each other and point out the sections of completely new products, or particularly clear and exhaustive nutritional labeling?” In compensation for the catalogue essay, Houellebecq agrees to accept a portrait of himself by Jed, which the latter pursues avidly, announcing that he wants it to be his finest work. “There’s something in your eyes, I don’t know what, but I believe I can transcribe it,” he tells Houellebecq. The declaration is immediately followed with this: “The word passion suddenly crossed Jed’s mind.”
But who has Jed fallen for? For the rest of the book, with Michel Houellebecq using “Michel Houellebecq” as a literary readymade, the number one takeaway about identity is that people are experienced only via mediated distortions of themselves, whatever poor things those selves are. Jed’s truncated relationship with Houellebecq falls tantalizingly outside this framework. He barely knows who Houellebecq “is,” since he barely pays attention to mass media, aside from very occasional game shows, cartoons, and Tour de France telecasts. Indeed, he never bothers to read Houellebecq’s books. Rather, Jed crushes out on someone he meets a handful of times, writes to a few times, and talks to on the phone; it is an old-fashioned model for the way we make a mental construct of someone else’s personality. This older mode of relationship is certainly susceptible to the projection of fantasies and wish-fulfillments: with Houellebecq, Jed has that profound yet banal experience of feeling that a particular person can supply you with an answer to an unknown question. “A writer must have some kind of knowledge about life,” he thinks, “or at least make you believe he does.” When he gets the news of Houellebecq’s death, he reflects, “He had always had in his head the idea that they were destined to see each other again, many times, and perhaps to become friends, insofar as that term was appropriate to people like them.” In both of these quoted sentences, the closing clauses show a degree of self-awareness, self-possession; perhaps they are to hint that Jed’s sense of affinity with Houellebecq is accurate. Neither he nor we ever know.
Given the book’s mood, Houellebecq’s murder could of course be akin to a wish-fulfillment for the author himself, let alone for the character. The abyss is so bleak, one might as well throw oneself into it as contemplate it. With Houellebecq cast as an answer-man and surrogate daddy, it is no coincidence that Jed receives the phone call relaying the news of the murder on the heels of Jed’s father’s announcement that he has decided to be euthanized at a clinic in Switzerland. Jed succeeds in forestalling his father’s action, but only for a couple of months: Come December — time to plan the holiday meal — Jed rings the nursing home and finds, to no surprise, that his father has checked himself out, destination Zurich. Houellebecq has always thrived by juxtaposition, and Inspector Jasselin’s impending retirement, his planned obsolescence, falls into a grim parallel with Jean-Pierre Martin’s reaction to our society’s treatment of the elderly. We quarantine them, and they soon find not only their lives but their very selves unbearable. Killing yourself seems like the best option in a social system that has streamlined itself to make everyone ultimately dispensable. As it happens, Jasselin and his female companion are childless; the cop shoots blanks. The couple rejects both adoption and in vitro in favor of a time-honored substitution: they move outside the death-plagued human order and get a dog.
For its first two-thirds The Map and the Territory is erratic. In can be entertaining, disordered, ruminative, wider in range than Houellebecq’s previous books but less penetrating and less cutting, or oppressively hopeless, which I mean as praise. It has the feeling of something not bad but minor. As it gears toward the discovery of Houellebecq’s killer and follows Jed’s flight into Switzerland after his father, however, it builds in scope and gravity across one of the best stretches of writing in Houellebecq’s oeuvre. He makes the facts surrounding the death truly strange, disturbing, powerful, and ambiguous. Though to go into detail would ruin Houellebecq’s perfectly crafted revelation and denouement, the book’s conclusion is both awful and, against all likelihood, realistic.
Bildungsroman, satire, crime drama, The Map and the Territory splices these templates without showing a seam. And then, in the end, with the irrationality of Houellebecq’s murder, the meticulous yet exuberant desecration of his corpse, the refusal to allow the killer’s behavior to resolve into something entirely comprehensible — all of this tilts the book over suddenly into yet another genre: horror. If mystery is fundamentally about investigating the self, horror, as an offshoot of romanticism, is about a negative sublime, about encountering something greater than yourself and being annihilated. Remember, Houellebecq is the author of a book-length study of H.P. Lovecraft; in fact, the state of the corpses in The Map and the Territory recalls a scene in Lovecraft’s 1931 novella At the Mountains of Madness, right down to the mingling of dog and human. Lovecraft made clear that beyond the commonplace horrors we could grasp through reason lies an infinite horror beyond all human understanding, “realms whose mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes,” as he put it in “The Colour Out of Space.” In The Map and Territory, Houellebecq makes clear that he sees two kinds of horror as well, which form his two great themes. First there is capitalism, which envelops us and inhabits us and corrodes everything about ourselves we consider human. Beyond that there’s something far worse, from which not even Marx can save us. It is the annihilating indifference of the universe, from which we have so much divorced ourselves that our ability to understand it gets weaker and weaker. We can neither escape nor comprehend. It will make us die and die as ignorant as any other animal. This is the horror we cannot wrap our heads around and which makes us go mad to look at too long.
Portrait of the Artist in the Age of Wikipedia
The Map and the Territory
Transl. by Gavin Bowd
Knopf, January 2012. 288 pp.
Alors voilà, il va falloir que je supporte jusqu’au bout d’être Houellebecq…Michel Houellebecq is quite a character. The bad boy of French letters has made his name building post-humanist novels where dogs and clones are the rare creatures achieving a modicum of happiness. Other characters usually fall into two main categories: the anti-hero who observes the nullity of the human species, and the few specimens of this species he encounters, who never fail to confirm his views. Since Extension du domaine de la lutte (translated as Whatever) and The Elementary Particles, Houellebecq’s misogynist, apocalyptic novels have earned him the label of inventor of “depressionist literature” and a devilish reputation as an über-provocateur. That his books consistently sell over 200,000 copies, and that he garnered a slew of literary prizes for them (including, finally, the time-honored Goncourt for his latest opus, The Map and the Territory), tells you how cheery contemporary France’s zeitgeist is.
[So there you have it, I will have to put up with being Houellebecq to the end.]
— Michel Houellebecq, Public Enemies
Yet Houellebecq claims he does not believe in the novel. “I’ve always found telling stories a pain in the ass, and I have no talent as a storyteller,” he declared to Bernard-Henri Lévy in 2008. He has repeatedly declared the novel a minor genre, a value judgment he asserts for theoretical and, however surprising for such a professed anti-romantic, what could be called sentimental reasons. The sentimental reason reveals an unexpected side of Houellebecq’s personality: an unwavering love for poetry (he began as a poet) and the moment of ecstasy that sudden inspiration can offer when it loosens the grip of time in a moment of pure selfless necessity. Working out the cogs and wheels of the fastidious, greasy “piece of machinery” that novels boil down to reminds him too much of the depressing temporality of all human endeavors. In his early poetic work, the joyously titled Rester Vivant, méthode (Staying Alive, A Method), Houellebecq states that
[a]ll human beings are alike. What’s the point of telling a string of new anecdotes? Of the uselessness of the novel. There is no more edifying death; the sun is missing. Individuality is for the most part just a failure. The sensation of the self a machine designed to fabricate feelings of failure. (translation mine)In this cheerful formulation, the novelist does not exactly have a head start. The individual self is an obsolete and destructive fallacy, and all human destinies follow a single, boring plot: decay.
Houellebecq’s theoretical reason against the novel is expressed judiciously in his first novel, Whatever:
Th[e] progressive effacement of human relationships is not without certain problems for the novel.…The novel form is not conceived for depicting indifference or nothingness; a flatter, more terse, and dreary discourse would need to be invented.“Flat,” “terse”: These adjectives aptly describe Houellebecq’s conspicuously neutral prose. His latest book, though, is anything but dreary. Rarely will you have as much fun reading a contemporary novel that is also a serious reflection on art, death, and contemporary society (not necessarily in that order). The Map and the Territory is a tour de force, a consummate postmodern construction where representation and reality (the map and the territory of the title) constantly spiral in and out of one another in vertiginous mirroring patterns. It is part crafty page-turner, part sociological inquiry, part satire, part mystery novel, part artist’s biography. In its seamless collage of artful pastiche, the novel captures with perfect irony the tone and texture of twenty-first-century discourses, from Wikipedia articles to operating instructions, from tacky pop songs to pompous art reviews in Le Monde. In the process, and without the usual heavy-handed provocations familiar to Houellebecq, it offers original insights into the museumification of contemporary France, the eerie coincidence between art and death, an exegesis of socialist writer William Morris, and a meditation on art as a practice, a product, and a business.
One can only wonder what it would have been had Houellebecq actually believed in the novel as an art form.
The first few paragraphs of The Map and the Territory alone are a little masterpiece of hyperrealism and ambiguity: The reader is lured by the depiction of an imminent clash between Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst only to discover, a few paragraphs later, that the two richest living artists will never exchange a word. Frozen forever in time, they exist only in a painting that the protagonist of the book, Jed Martin, is struggling to finish and will soon tear apart out of frustration with Koon’s expression, as difficult to render as that of “a Mormon pornographer.” What we thought was an in medias res opening was, in fact, in medias ars.
From there, we follow Martin from his first solo exhibition in the early 2000s (a series of magnificent photographic enlargements of Michelin maps depicting France’s rural regions) through various artistic phases that lead him to beat Koons and Hirst on the art market and to meet, and paint, the famed author Michel Houellebecq. “Houellebecq” — obligingly true to his real life reputation as a depressed, abrasive, inebriated loner living in Ireland — agrees to write up the introduction to the catalogue of Jed’s second retrospective. That show presents ten years’ worth of solitary work depicting human labor: two sets of hyperrealist paintings titled “The Series of Simple Professions” (“Ferdinand Desroches, Horse Butcher,” “Aimée, Escort Girl,” etc.) and “The Series of Business Confrontation” (“Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology. Or, The Conversation of Palo Alto” and the Koons-Hirst confrontation, among others). No sooner has “Houellebecq” fulfilled his narrative function and retired, unexpectedly happy and cordial, to the house where he grew up on the French countryside than he is savagely killed: His body, along with his dog’s, is found shredded into small strips of flesh and plastered across their living room into a gigantic Pollock painting. In the third and last part of the novel, Jed helps solve the crime.
In Jed Martin, Houellebecq gives us an intriguing character who, like his creator, claims not to believe in intriguing characters:
I have the impression that people resemble one another more than is normally said… I know very well that human beings are the subject of the novel, of the great Western novel, and one of the great subjects of painting as well, but I can’t help thinking that people are much less different than they generally think.“Houellebecq” the character could not agree more: The portrayal of individuals as individuals, in the visual arts or in literature, is a dead end. “Picasso’s portrait of Dora Maar, who gives a fuck about that?” he asks. “The portrait of Fuckface, member of the Merchant’s Guild, by Van Dyck, now that’s something else; because it’s not Fuckface who interests Van Dyck, but the Merchant’s Guild.” Rather than exploring complicated psychologies, both Jed and “Houellebecq” prefer to observe the individual within a system of production of values and objects, artworks among them. With little individuality to speak of (we never get to know what Jed looks like, what he wears, and the only “orgy” he can remember in a seven-year period is of Italian pasta bought at the neighborhood supermarket), the protagonist is himself a product as much as a producer. This focus on production, consumption, and social types is squarely in the great tradition of the nineteenth-century novel, but with a decidedly quantitative economic bent. The twenty-first-century Bildungsroman offers a more precise appraisal of the social valuation of the ascending hero than did the nineteenth-century version: Price fixation on the art market now gives you the exact amount. After putting online a first set of photographs for sale, Houellebecq writes, Jed “knew his market price.” “We too are products … cultural products. We too will become obsolete,” “Houellebecq” reflects philosophically.
English critics have complained about the shallowness of Houellebecq’s characters (the French, long ago vaccinated by the nouveau roman, only lament the creepy reduction of female characters to sex dolls). Truth be told, Jed is not the deep-feeling kind. He goes years without exchanging a word with fellow humans except to decline the loyalty card regularly offered at the Casino, the supermarket where he goes shopping. Once a year he visits his father for a laconic Christmas dinner and waits silently, but to no avail, for an explanation of his mother’s suicide when he was 6. Jed’s own “love” story with Olga, a rich Russian bimbo who also is instrumental in launching his artistic career, is devoid of melodrama to the extreme. Their favorite pastime is to visit Relais et Châteaux hotels and compare the prose of the Michelin Guide to the amenities it poeticizes — a map and territory meta-analysis that does not yield much psychological insight. When Olga is called back to Saint-Petersbourg for a promotion, Jed has literally nothing to say. “Perplexed” is a word that often describes him.
But compared to Houellebecq’s past collection of self-assured, misanthropic, narcissistic heroes, perplexity is actually a refreshing change. Jed’s feelings might be locked in inaccessible places, but he genuinely wonders about how human relations work. For instance, this low-key, oddly likable protagonist entertains a touching, if muted relationship to his father: His last-minute attempt to deter him from euthanasia, for all its droll comedy of errors, is more moving than any page written by Houellebecq before. By inventing a protagonist who is a cross between that of Candide and Camus’s L’Étranger — at once innocent and alienated — Houellebecq hollows out a vortex of incomprehension at the center of the novel, a black hole that pulls all the other elements of the novel into a shadow of uncertainty. Jed remains a stranger, and not just in the art world.
The colorless neutrality of his vision (he consistently uses gray backgrounds in his artwork) makes room for a genuine engagement of the reader, who is finally spared the need to react viscerally to the nonstop provocations that filled Houellebecq’s previous books. No underage whores, barely any misogynist comments (though a “poor little rut of a woman with her unexplored vagina” shows up briefly), no racist slurs. A space of indetermination is carved out by the double distance of character to the world, and narrator to character. Houellebecq has abandoned provocation for provocation’s sake. Instead, he offers a worldview untainted by the neediness of his previous avatars, who threw verbal abuse at us as a way of begging for our attention. In Jed’s story, the gap between absent self and prolific world — a distance born of perplexity as much as artistic remoteness — brings to the novel a philosophical weight absent from Houellebecq’s former works and their saturated taste of roman à thèse.
Jed is the black hole that pulls all the other elements of the novel into a shadow of uncertainty. In fact, as The Map and the Territory progresses, not one but two detective stories eventually unfold: The book investigates both the death of “Houellebecq” and the life of Jed Martin. The first mystery gives the novel its narrative drive; the second, more subtle, its peculiar voice. In case the debt to the detective novel isn’t clear, we are given a hint early on when Jed, realizing that he owes his ascent to his girlfriend, muses about the literary models his life follows:
Among his readings as an adolescent, …there had been those realist novels of the French nineteenth century where it happens that ambitious young men succeed through women; but he was surprised to find himself in a similar situation, and in truth, he had rather forgotten those realist novels of the French nineteenth century. For a few years, he had only been able to read Agatha Christie.Agatha Christie it will be, then, as much as Balzac.
Not that Houellebecq sticks to the canon for his stylistic influences. As we follow Jed’s career, we soon realize that the elegant narrative voice that details his artistic choices speaks of him retrospectively from the vantage point of the late twenty-first century. With the polished, impersonal tone of a Wikipedia article, it reconstructs for a general audience the life and work of the renowned, but elusive artist Jed Martin. Maybe it is only to be expected that in the information age the dominant narrative voice be crowdsourced. With this ironic pastiche, Houellebecq does with Wikipedia what Jed performs with Michelin maps or industrial objects: He captures in hyperrealistic detail a snapshot of a human product emblematic of its age. (Perhaps a little too well: He was, in fact, accused of plagiarizing Wikipedia by Slate in 2010.)
The Map and the Territory presents a critique of maps and dictionaries of various guises: art reviews (abhorred), guidebooks, and other manuals that format our usage of the world. Jed’s close reading of the operating instructions of his Samsung ZRT-AV2 camera might make us smile (what is Jed, decidedly single and fatherless, supposed to do with its “Baby1” and “Baby2” settings?), but it also serves to remind us that these operating instructions are embedded within a larger instruction manual — the novel itself — which speculates on how to read the works of Jed Martin. It’s not just that there is no more unexplored territory in our world, that everything has been mapped out and that, as the title of Jed’s first exhibit suggests, “The Map Is More Important Than The Territory”; rather, we never get to experience anything but maps, not just of places but of things and even people.
In the case of Jed’s biography, the narrator is removed from his topic by historical distance and by the inscrutability of his subject, given that Jed never talked much about his work. He also adopts a distanced stance on sources and object, pointing out Jed’s theoretical immaturity on occasion:
Thus Jed launched himself into an artistic career whose sole project was to give an objective description of the world — a goal whose illusory nature he rarely sensed. Despite his classical background, he was in no way — contrary to what has often been written since — filled with a religious respect for the old masters.This story, we come to realize, is a revision of past commentaries — notably those of Chinese essayist Wong Fu Xin, who is apparently the authoritative figure of art criticism around 2050. As we near the end of Jed’s life and reach into the future, France looks ever more like a theme park for Asian tourists eager to snap a picture of ancient crafts even older than the professions Jed records. Old is the new “new”; ruralism is trendy. The territory now conforms to the map, and France collapses into a patchwork of terroirs commercialized for the Chinese entrepreneurs who have won today’s economic war. To them — in a kind of reverse Orientalism — France and its culture are objects of ethnographic fascination.
Irony here (if you are willing to play the game) is the tool that prevents such prophecy from sounding fake or lazy. And that might be the limit of the book, or at least of its translation, for an international audience. The fact is that France has already become an object of ethnological wonder for much of the American public: a picturesque culture from the past, blind to its contradictions and its imminent demise. What registers as a tongue-in-cheek joke for a French reader (the idea that France is passé or, as English would say, “has-been”) might seem like a bland statement of the obvious to an American one.
Will international audiences get the same kick as French readers do witnessing Jed mingle with kitschy mid-range media celebrities who, apparently, are the new star-makers in ruralized France? Translator and publisher have chosen to forgo the explanatory footnotes that would help identify fixtures of lowbrow TV such as Jean-Pierre Pernaut, Pierre Bellemare, Claire Chazal, or Patrick Le Lay. How will U.S. readers recognize TV host Jean-Pierre Foucault (not exactly the Foucault usually discussed on American campuses), or understand why Jed’s admiration for Julien Lepers is hilarious? (Tip: This Foucault is famous for a smile so syrupy feels one’s brain instantly marshmallowed and one’s teeth candied watching him whisper, “Who wants to win millions?”; and Lepers’s claim to fame lies in his ability to host the French Jeopardy! while being obviously illiterate, as evidenced by a France Inter radio show’s regular four-minute segment simply devoted to replaying his blunders.) The translation, by Gavin Bowd, misses some of the subtle ironies Houellebecq has ingeniously wrought into his prose by way of superfluous periphrasis, punctuation or lack thereof, and, more generally, his way of making the narration sound a little “off” after tricking you into forgetting its nearly transparent style. (Sometimes, the economy with which Bowd chooses to tighten Houellebecq’s prose leads to plain inaccuracies: for instance, when he compresses the intentional cliché of “an acceptance of the world that was sometimes enthusiastic, more often nuanced with irony” into the more complex, oxymoronic “acceptance of the world that was occasionally enthusiastic, but nuanced with irony.”)
But no matter: The author’s primary target in The Map and the Territory is not France, or China, but himself. Houellebecq is the first to admit that, up till now, he has owed his success as a novelist in no small part to the media outrage that his public appearances rarely fail to cause. As Julian Barnes recalled in a New Yorker review of Platform, Houellebecq came to receive the $30,000 check awarded with the 2001 “Prix Novembre” unshaved, in “a baggy sweater and rumpled scarlet jeans,” displaying a conspicuously ungrateful attitude. The novel thus rewarded, in case anyone forgot, promoted sexual tourism and underage prostitution.
Houellebecq is understandably weary of this cumbersome media persona: “Now I am in the game, to say the least; I’m desperately looking for a way to get out (while continuing, to some small extent, to be in),” he confesses to Bernard-Henri Lévy in Public Enemies. In The Map and the Territory, he seems to have found a solution to his conundrum: Instead of publicly performing the fabricated role of provocateur, why not reclaim the character for himself and write him out of existence? What better way to get rid of a character than to kill him? The novelist’s heavy artillery can, in such an instance, come in handy.
Envisioning his own death has long been Houellebecq’s coping strategy for the angst surrounding the appearance of each new book: “You simply have to visualize your own death. And imagine that it will occur shortly before publication.” Then you are free to write. By killing “Houellebecq” the character and transforming his scattered body into a work of art, Houellebecq the author has freed himself from a persona that was starting to drag his fiction down.
Or, to paraphrase what the author of The Map and the Territory once wrote about H.P. Lovecraft: “Houellebecq dead, his work is born.”
Domenick Ammirati’s writing has appeared in publications including Artforum, Bookforum, Dot Dot Dot, and Modern Painters, where he served as senior editor. His most recent nonfiction, on Occupy Wall Street and New York’s intellectual community, appeared in Artforum.com’s Scene and Herd blog, and his essay on structure and metaphor in contemporary art appeared on the cover of the final issue of ArtLies magazine. He is at work on a novel.
Cécile Alduy is Associate Professor of French Literature at Stanford University. The author of two books on Renaissance poetry, she has written on literature and culture in the San Francisco Chronicle, Le Monde, Zyzzyva, and other publications.
Image: Plot (I) Detail, 2010 map, acrylic, pins, adhesive, paper © Shannon Rankin All rights reserved http://bit.ly/xG8DzV