Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Michel Houellebecq's "The Map and the Territory": Book Review

Michel, appearing in his own fifth novel, has his artist-protagonist Jed Martin's father say of their creator: "He's a good author, it seems to me. He's pleasant to read, and he has quite an accurate view of society." He later's "a loner with strong misanthropic tendencies; it was rare for him even to say a word to his dog." His anodyne, but dryly witty summation characterizes the feel of Houllebecq's streamlined, yet often curiously detailed, fiction. I've admired his previous fiction, "Whatever,'' "Platform," and especially "The Elementary Particles"; "The Possibility of an Island" tried to be too ambitious, but it remained readable and thought-provoking as the first three novels. (All reviewed by me.)

Gavin Boyd's translation keeps the hermetic, slightly antiseptic feel of Houellebecq. For all his detail, here lavished upon the art world as well as the vagaries of male power and female "plenitude" marshaled as how our third millennium's establishing its time-tested control over we weaker consumers, he remains distant even as he digs into how we create, buy, sell, and ruminate, in everyday language and coolly observed branding. Transport, cuisine, shopping as in earlier novels earn his scrutiny and inclusion in efficiently conveyed prose. Naturally, the evolution of European sensibilities via the visual arts within a networked, high-tech world is discussed, in the academic tones of an historian. Therefore, the author's delivery usually keeps you at a safe remove from Jed--Houellebecq shrinks from predictable emotion or facile melodrama. He likes to stand back from indirect narration via Jed to adapt a stance of an art curator or critical scholar.

Taking photos of Michelin road maps, Jed finds a perfect title for their exhibition--"The map is more interesting than the territory." Typically for Houellebecq, this opens up a rigorously factual, while speculative, novel of ideas. Jed's efforts tie into making the French countryside "trendy" for the first time since Rousseau. Jed's relationship falters; after setting up background, Houellebecq in part two returns to the novel's opening.

Jed goes to the airport town of Shannon in Ireland (and then to his place in his native land) to meet and to arrange a sitting to paint Michel. He takes along a Samsung camera to shoot him first, a mechanism oddly described in typical terms, and ten years' gap shifts forward and back in expected form for this novelist. Damien Hirst, Bill Gates, Jeff Koons, and Steve Jobs pop up, subjects of other sittings. So do discussions of William Morris, Le Corbusier, silicone breasts, and Tocqueville. As in earlier novels, suicide of a loved one looms large as a revelation for the main character; his anomie and midlife ennui are juxtaposed with success by bourgeoisie standards. "Sexuality is a fragile thing: it is difficult to enter and easy to leave." Upending what you'd expect?

Well, I will leave part three to you. Suffice to say it's clever if not that unexpected, given it's from a French intellectual au courant not only police procedurals but with textual theory. (Amazon US 12-20-11)

No comments: