The Map and the Territory
by Michel Houellebecq
Translated by Gavin Bowd
Alfred A. Knopf
I’m not going to write about Michel Houellebecq’s shocking public fight with his mother, nor his penchant for sex clubs, nor his charm and wit and reputed sexual prowess. I’m not going to tell you how much he drinks, nor what drugs he uses, nor speculate as to the cause of his disappearance earlier this year. I’m not going to write about the album Iggy Pop recorded based on Houellebecq’s fourth novel, The Possibility of an Island, nor his public defamation of Islam, nor his interest in H.P. Lovecraft. I’m not going to talk about his epistolary war with frenemy Bernard Henri-Levy, nor am I going to discuss his tax problems. Googling “Houellebecq” leads one into a hall of mirrors, a confusing maze of gossip and confession. But I am not writing about Houellebecq. I’m writing about his book. This is a more difficult task than it seems, for Houellebecq appears in the novel as noted author, Michel Houellebecq.
Through his work, the protagonist Jed befriends Houellebecq, and, since Jed is a pastiche of Houellebecq, and Houellebecq is the author Michel Houellebecq, their scenes together are in danger of reading like a schizophrenic talking to himself. Instead they are lively and playful. A naked need for friendship beats between Jed and Michel, and that friendship gives the novel a layer of tenderness not often found in Houellebecq’s novels.
The Map and the Territory contains Houellebecq’s usual provocations. Jed’s father encapsulates Houellebecq’s view of artistic success:
I’ve known several guys in my life who wanted to become artists, and were supported by their parents; not one of them managed to break through. It’s curious you might think that the need to express yourself, to leave a trace in the world, is a powerful force, yet in general that’s not enough. What works best is money, what pushes people most violently to surpass themselves, is still the pure and simple need for money.
For all of Houellebecq’s celebrations of crass commercialism and its sidesteps into objectification, The Map and the Territory is a kind, witty, and charming novel. Houellebecq describes the artistic developments of protagonist Jed Martin’s lifelong career as a painter with compelling earnestness and clarity. The novel is touching in its exploration of the contrast between Jed’s success and ascendancy as an artist, and his father’s aging in the wake of his career as an architect:
On entering the nursing home, the former head of the family—now, irrefutably, an old man—becomes a bit like a child at boarding school. Sometimes, he receives visits: then it’s happiness, he can discover the world, eat at Pepitos and meet Ronald McDonald. But more often, he doesn’t receive any; he wanders around sadly, between the handball goalposts, on the bituminous ground of the deserted boarding school. He waits for liberation, an escape from all of it.
I’ve read and liked much of Houellbecq’s work, even when he seems to detour into provocation for it’s own sake. But it wasn’t until I read The Map and the Territory that I fully realized how he rescues his novels from being thrown across the room during those “lower” moments. It is difficult to say whether this epiphany of mine is an actual construct of his, or pure philosophical kismet, but here goes: Houellebecq (the author, not the character, though him, too) always draws a lot of fire for being shocking. The labels strapped to him are many and partly accurate, but the beauty of being callow is in the redemption. Yes, he may hammer out many shallow observations and revel in his own seemingly reactionary perspective—his hatred of post-1960s liberalism, his disdain for the “progressive” politics. But there are moments in The Map and the Territory that are so clear, so beautiful, so poignant, that the contrast with the more confounding sections is stunning. Here’s one of my favorite of these moments:
Olga was nice, she was nice and loving, Olga loved him, he repeated to himself with a growing sadness as he also realized that nothing would ever happen between them again; life sometimes offers you a chance, he thought, but when you are too cowardly or too indecisive to seize it life takes the cards away; there is a moment for doing things and entering a possible happiness, and this moment lasts a few days, sometimes a few weeks or even a few months, but it happens once and one time only, and if you want to return to it later it’s quite simply impossible. There’s no more place for enthusiasm, belief, and faith, and there remains just gentle resignation, a sad and reciprocal pity, the useless but correct sensation that something could have happened, that you just simply showed yourself unworthy of this gift you had been offered.
And it is here, in this strange territory between the shallow and reductive and the expansive and brilliant, that Houellebecq leads us. And it’s a beautiful place, well worth the bumps in the journey.
Frances Badgett is Contrary’ s fiction editor.