Sunday 16 June 2013

The Map and the Territory, By Michel Houellebecq

The Map and the Territory, By Michel Houellebecq
(Vintage, £7.99 stg, P/B)

The latest novel from the author of controversial and prize-winning works Atomised and Platform is his most normal and conventional outing thus far. But this is Houellebecq, so it is still relatively challenging.
  Essentially it is the life-story of successful French artist Jed Martin, an only child and a solitary adult, whose social and sexual interactions are few and far between. He meets his retired architect father once a year for Christmas dinner (his mother committed suicide when he was a boy). For a time he has an affair with beautiful Russian émigré, Olga. Otherwise his main distraction is the fluctuating state of the boiler in his bachelor pad/artist’s studio. He seems to stumble through life, having the great good fortune that his talent is recognised, and handsomely remunerated, without much obvious self-promotion. Indeed, his Kiplingesque indifference to ‘those two imposters’, and the feeling that his acclaim is as much the result of blind chance as it is of ability and application, is one of his more attractive features.
  He begins his artistic career photographing tools and household objects, but gains attention for his series of photographic recastings of Michelin maps. It is through these works that he meets Olga, who is Public Relations director of Michelin France. After they become lovers, they enjoy weekends away in provincial France, at ‘Charm & Relax’ hotels and Michelin starred restaurants. One could argue that in his caustic observations on the socio-economic demographics of the domestic leisure industry, Houellebecq here does for tourism in France what Platform did for holidays in Thailand. Jed’s mature work, carried out long after Olga has returned to promotion in Moscow, starts out as the Series of Simple Professions, and culminates in canvases with titles like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology and Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market. He photographs things; he paints people.
  The Michelin fixation has a clear antecedent in Roland Barthes’ essay ‘The Blue Guide’ from Mythologies; but it is another, more well-known Barthes work which really informs The Map and the Territory: ‘The Death of the Author’. Jed requests that none other than Michel Houellebecq, the notorious novelist, write the catalogue essay for a retrospective of his work. After meeting the author, he decides to do a portrait of Michel Houellebecq, Writer. So, Houellebecq becomes a character in his own novel, with all the opportunities for satire, self-parody and doubleness that entails. When the author gets bumped off in gruesome fashion, the book takes an unexpected left turn into a police procedural. It also brings the nod to Barthes full circle, and sets up a challenge from the creative to the critical, the literary to the theoretical. Barthes argued for the effacement of authorial biography and intention. Houellebecq’s voice, entangled as it is with his anti-celebrity, and the flatly opinionated tone of his writings, is so powerful that it speaks from beyond the grave.
  Some will say that this is Houellebecq’s least ambitious novel, even if it is the first one to win the prestigious Prix Goncourt in France. Atomised, after all, was dedicated ‘to mankind’.  But, aside from taking a few pot-shots at his detractors among France’s media figures, for the most part Houellebecq avoids the navel-gazing pitfalls inherent in the ‘novelist-as-character-in-his-own-novel’ ploy. Rather like the artist Jed Martin, the writer Michel Houellebecq has achieved both critical and commercial recognition, a combination which can arouse a good deal of professional jealousy and financial envy. The novel does contain some shrewd send-ups of art criticism and the art market. The character Houellebecq, in his exhibition catalogue, opines that all of Jed Martin’s work could be subtitled A Brief History of Capitalism. Perhaps the same is true of Houellebecq’s oeuvre.  At any rate, he can still employ his trenchant talent for amusingly sweeping generalisation to devastating effect, as with, ‘They had several happy weeks. It was not, it couldn’t be, the exacerbated, feverish happiness of young people, and it was no longer a question for them in the course of a weekend to get plastered or totally shit-faced; it was already – but they were still young enough to laugh about it – the preparation for that epicurean, peaceful, refined but unsnobbish happiness that Western society offered the representatives of its middle-to-upper classes in middle age.’ One certainly wonders how far his tongue was planted in his cheek when he has Jed’s father offer this opinion of his work: ‘He’s a good author, it seems to me. He’s pleasant to read, and he has quite an accurate view of society.’

First published in The Sunday Independent.

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