Sun, Oct 16, 2011 - Page 14 News List

Book review: The Map and the Territory, by Michel Houellebecq

Although Michel Houellebecq’s ‘The Map and the Territory’ is compulsive reading, it’s not the French writer’s best

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing Reporter

The Map and the Territory / by Michel Houellebecq / 291 pages / Heinemann

Finally it’s arrived — the English-language translation of Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel that won the Prix Goncourt, France’s leading literary award, a year ago.

It tells the story of an artist, Jed Martin, in contemporary Paris. He begins his career photographing industrially produced objects — screws, table lamps — but then makes his name taking pictures of Michelin maps of France, enhancing them with images of the countryside they depict. An exhibition of these works is entitled “The Map Is More Interesting Than the Territory” — hence the novel’s title.

Next he proceeds to paint pictures of modern people at work. One is Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology, another Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market. But he needs someone to write the text of his exhibition catalogue and hits on the idea of asking the famed writer Michel Houellebecq to do the job.

Houellebecq agrees and Martin flies to Ireland to show him photos of his pictures. While there he offers to paint Houellebecq’s portrait, which becomes Michel Houellebecq, Writer and is, by the end of the novel, valued at US$8.3 million.

It would be wrong to reveal what happens in between, but suffice it to say that the novel fast becomes a detective thriller, and the real Houellebecq thanks some senior members of the French police for helping him with information about their world.

Michel Houellebecq isn’t really a novelist by nature. He is, rather, someone drawn to observations about modern life, and life in general, who opts not to synthesize these perceptions, instead incorporating them into the texts of rather melodramatic novels. The Map and the Territory, for example, contains details of the kind of gruesome murders featured in blockbusters, complete with, at a later point, wolves howling at the full moon.


Nevertheless, his depiction of France today — now shorn of its traditional bar-tabacs, its incomparable landscapes given over to luxurious second homes, its cities characterized by the presence of unassimilated immigrants — is outstanding. His comments on dogs (“any kind of erotic refinement is unknown to them”), birds, fathers, air travel and the Parisian art world are almost worthy of his literary hero Alexis de Tocqueville. On old age he’s particularly ruthless; there is no sunset glow here, only decline, decay and unavoidable humiliation. Martin’s father, for example, is facing the prospect, following rectal cancer, of being fitted with an artificial anus — a detail very much par for the course for this author.

Houellebecq’s intellectual interests are clearly genuine. He’s fascinating, for example, on the 19th-century English artist and would-be social reformer William Morris. It’s an unexpected area of expertise for any Frenchman, but central to one of the book’s main concerns, the evolution of the Western world’s means of manufacture, from craftsman to industrial production line. He also writes knowledgeably on cars (“one of the last spaces of freedom”), expensive cameras and the Internet.

As for sex, there is far less of it in this novel than in its predecessors. It’s even possible that Houellebecq has changed his mind about the activity altogether. One of his characters, a senior policeman, describes it on what are classic Puritan lines — part of a brutal fight for domination and the elimination of the rival, the ultimate source of “all massacres and suffering,” and “the most direct and obvious manifestation of evil.” And as in all Houellebecq’s work, any opinion expressed by any character must be assumed to be the author’s own — he has just too much to say, you feel, for it all to be assigned to a single fictional creation.

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