By John Adamian
2:36 PM EST, January 18, 2012
The French novelist Michel Houellebecq is possibly best known for pissing off Muslims and for endorsing sex tourism. Add to that a reputation for crazy boozing, and the guy doesn’t win loads of sympathy. (A mini flap over the author’s alleged plagiarism from Wikipedia seems quaint by comparison.) He’s sort of old school in his ability to debauch and infuriate. Houellebecq’s new novel, The Map and the Territory, out this month in English, is perhaps surprising for not being quite as outrageous as the author’s previous work. That doesn’t mean it won’t shock a good many readers.
There’s a grisly (and slightly gristly) murder involving the dismembering and flaying of one of the main characters in which blood and skin and bits are arranged a little in the manner of a Jackson Pollock drip painting. That’s nasty, I know, and the connection would seem unnecessary and over-the-top but that the book involves the art world. The main character is an artist named Jed Martin whose obsessions line up nicely with some of Houellebecq’s concerns, namely the ways that capitalism and hedonism align and ultimately alienate consumers from the world around them, while cementing strong bonds with manufactured goods and products.
One of the fictional Martin’s series involves pictures of mass-produced hardware parts. (Later scholars, Houellebecq write, would note that it was a part of Martin’s “homage to human labor.”) Another of Martin’s famed groups of paintings depict workers and business professionals -- architects, escorts, engineers, technology moguls and others. A third strain of Martin’s work, and the one that earned him initial success, takes Michelin maps of spots in France and superimposes elements of real landscape to create a kind of idealized topographic fantasy. Or so Houellebecq tells us. And it’s Houellebecq’s in-depth verbal skills in describing non-existent works of art that adds one of the layers of self-reflexive, meta, post-everything to the book. Like in Paul Auster’s “The Book of Illusions,” which offered elaborate descriptions of early silent movies by the fictional filmmaker Hector Mann, Houellebecq somehow heightens the sense of magic involved in routine storytelling by having the book hinge in part on verbal descriptions of non-existent art. To further complicate matters, one of the characters is the writer Houellebecq who has been charged with writing a catalog easy on Martin’s work, and so the real Houellebecq at times quotes the fictional Houellebecq’s writing about the fictive art of the made-up character Jed Martin. Got that?
But there’s more going on here than po-mo trickery and loops within loops. One of Houellebecq’s other themes is aging, death and decay, the way of all flesh. “Amid the generalized physical collapse that is old age, the voice and the eyes bear painfully indisputable witness to the persistence of characters, aspirations, and desires, everything constitutes a human personality,” he writes. At the scene of the gruesome murder, Houellebecq has one of the detectives think to himself that if he was to “assess the crime scene without going to pieces, he should, he was clearly aware, adopt the fly’s point of view.” A “human corpse is just meat” from the fly’s perspective, he thinks. Then there’s a long and strangely flat (this was one of the bits borrowed from Wikipedia, evidently, on the life cycle of the house fly.)
Houellebecq -- the fictional one and the real one -- seems to be concerned with thingness, as does Martin, with style and surface and the ways that design and ownership have come to define our lives. There are mini meditations on the dehumanizing effect of the architecture of Le Corbusier and on the utopian philosophies of William Morris. One incident I found particularly interesting featured Houellebecq and Martin drinking and discussing art and literature and commodification. Houellebecq mentions the French writer Georges Perec and his book Things, which aimed, in part, to tell a story about a couple mostly through describing the things they own. “Georges Perec accepts the consumer society,” Houellebecq tells Martin, “and he rightly considers it the only possible horizon.”
Houellebecq’s treatment of the character Houellebecq is pretty harsh. He’s a clumsy boozer, for sure, and a bit of an anti-social loser, plus he has bacterial infections (athlete’s foot). It’s not very flattering. And it gets even uglier. Maybe he’s giving his critics the pleasure of seeing him as the gross drunk they’ve come to expect. (A drunk Houellebecq goes off to Martin about Picasso’s worthlessness -- “priapic daubings”.)
Like the products its characters are fascinated with, The Map and the Territory has a high sheen that is both alluring and off-putting at times. Spots of the writing seem strangely -- perhaps intentionally -- flat. And yet Houellebecq’s strange mix of visual detail, Marxist critique and thriller sub-plot propel the book along. It’s a product that the fictional Jed Martin would find a functional pleasure in consuming.
Post Your Comment Below
Copyright © 2013, WTXX-TV