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.
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 compared to poetry. In his early poetic work, the joyously titled Rester Vivant, méthode (Staying Alive, A Method), Houellebecq states:
[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.
And then there is:
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. (Extension du domaine de la lutte)
“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.
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. After putting online a first set of photographs for sale, Houellebecq writes, Jed “knew his market price.” The 21st 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. “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. 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.
Houellebecq has abandoned provocation for provocation’s sake. 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. 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. I wonder how U.S. readers will 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.
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.”