Houellebecq’s map of the modern world

Polarizing French author as divisive as ever in latest novel

The Map and the Territory

Michel Houellebecq

Knopf 288 pp.

The world has not quite made up its mind about Michel Houellebecq. This enigmatic Frenchman author of Platform and The Elementary Particles two equally controversial tomes is worshipped by some reviled by more; in either case crumpling brows with joy or repugnance respectively.

His latest The Map and the Territory recipient of the 2010 Prix Goncourt (it makes its English-translation debut with this edition) makes no effort to shy away from this polarizing nature: Houellebecq himself makes his appearance as a character in a droll unforgiving caricature of his finer qualities. Unlike Georges Perec who inserts himself in his work as arcane creator and Pan-like disruptor of the ether or Paul Auster as the perpetually confused scribe/sleuth in the unravelling of his particular brand of metafiction Houellebecq traces himself as the world might imagine him — drowned in wine impossibly hermetic prone to depression musty.

The novel follows Jed Martin an equally unsociable artist with a deep connection to objects. Launching his art career with a series of photographs of Michelin road maps he charts a path towards fame wealth and a place in the top echelons of ArtPrice rankings. However Jed has no idea what it is he is supposed to do with this fame this wealth; he would prefer to watch television occasionally turning himself to his work keeping mostly to himself. Instead he is propelled into the trappings of the art world governed by the free-market just as any other industry. From there Houellebecq launches into his critique of modern France and of the modern world — of tourism art technology and the gripping miasma of manufactured objects; a world coloured its very hue determined by supply and demand where even values and traditions are subjected to the market.

The Map and the Territory is populated with objects named objects; brand is indispensable and Houellebecq makes no effort to hide the brand names model numbers all the weightless specifications and statistics that permeate our periphery and make up the architecture of our everyday. He launches into these details as if reciting an instruction manual barely stifling the irony in his voice; indeed the novel’s narrative voice is of a detached laughing eye floating over a bed of advertisements pamphlets and brochures upon which Jed Martin crouches in bewilderment. All of Houellebecq’s characters suffer from this disorientation the sense of being lost in a sea of objects. The Houellebecq character “the poet of The Art of the Struggle” as the narrator chides hides in Ireland stumbling around his unpacked boxes in a scarlet stupor rambling on about radiators. Jed’s father a retired architect whose health is steadily deteriorating confesses past dreams of vital creativity which were crushed by the reign of functionalism in France in the ’50s and ’60s.

The narrative suddenly shifts as the novel nears its third act when Houellebecq guides us into the path of a horrid crime; this violence transforms the book into a distant cousin of the police procedural. Isolated it is a strange choice and may be disconcerting to some readers but Houellebecq ties everything back into the main arc though not without some hiccups. At points his dialogue waxes pedantic as characters expound interminably on art culture and economics though he manages to bring dimension to them by infusing each with an acute sense of being completely utterly lost. His prose is by no means beautiful; it is a voice of keen observation distance and dissection. Though precise and intelligent it is not devoid of humour; Houellebecq is a surgeon albeit a smirking one and everything has within it that seed of a great world-weariness — a shrug of the shoulders and a barely stifled laughter somewhat resembling a sigh.