Critics and readers know Michel Houellebecq as the enfant terrible of French literary fiction—yes, he’s the guy who called Islam “by far the most stupid, false and obfuscating of all religions” and who holds that “life is painful and disappointing.” Although his earlier novels sparked a considerable amount of commentary on his “pornographic” prose and ushered in a huge international readership, the mix of shock factor and depravity surrounding the author had grown a bit stale since then.
But Houellebecq’s latest novel, “The Map and the Territory,” translated by Gavin Bowd and published in English by Knopf this January, leaves behind the brothels and the sex trade that Houellebecq seemed fatally attracted to in his first works and moves the author onward to, as it were, new territory. It recently received the Prix Goncourt, the most prestigious of French literary awards.
“The Map and the Territory” charts the artist Jed Martin’s ascendancy through the ranks of the Parisian art world. Jed is a quiet, contemplative man who realizes he will flourish as an artist only once he “resolved to shut up, as much as possible.” Houellebecq seems to detest the assertive, flashy artists who construct some kind of presence or persona. Rather, the artist is a self-effacing, normal character for Houellebecq, in contrast with the sex-starved programmers and hermitic clones of his earlier works.
Houellebecq increases the number of artist-subjects by inserting himself into the novel as a character. How meta of him, but is it worthy of applause? The unkempt alcoholic, forever with cigarette in mouth, Houellebecq shows he understands how French tabloids perceive him. It’s a gesture towards self-awareness and humility that an author like Houellebecq has rarely expressed.
The most engaging works Jed produces are macro-photography shots of Michelin maps, which eventually put him into conversation with Michelin executives and his lover to-be, Olga. When Michelin begins to appropriate Jed’s art for its own corporate purposes, Houellebecq offers a commendably blasé, realist view of capitalism’s influence on art: “There, that was sorted out: he knew his market price.”
Jed’s complicity in the system leads to even greater success in his next series of paintings, which depict, of all things, laborers at their work. One can almost see Houellebecq sneering as he writes—but as he laments the inescapable system, he mocks the artists who want so fiercely to escape it. Jed succeeds in part because he doesn’t feel the need to raze everything to the ground.
The lover Olga is employed by Michelin to produce French guidebooks. Houellebecq uses her to spotlight the impossibility of ever knowing a place. The couple follows the guidebook to countryside hôtels de charme that turn out to provide experiences altogether different from what their texts promise. Jed sometimes feels a sentiment familiar to any New Yorker—that he is walking “aimlessly in the streets of this city that in the end he barely knew. He ... needed the help of a map.” Houellebecq seems to be questioning us: What is culture and where is located? And what do we do when we cannot seem to find it?
Houellebecq offers a half-answer: It seems that the moment you pin down such a culture, it transforms. Jed, “submissive” to his art, finds himself incapable of producing more map-related photography after its exhibition, and so he must destroy “an entire body of work, to set off in a radically new direction.” The contrast between the elusive nature of the artist’s subject and the culture the gallery-goers are seeking are momentarily captured in the vocabulary of mapmaking.
In light of the Prix Goncourt, the French literary establishment seems to believe “The Map and the Territory” to be Houellebecq’s chef d’oeuvre, and it is tempting to agree with the award committee. The writer has come to terms with his individual preoccupations and has extended his literary world to encompass other, more distant realities. And even if the author on occasion falls back on old tropes, he seems, like Jed, to have set off in a new direction.