WHILE MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ HAS INVEIGHED against critics reading the writing of other critics in lieu of his books themselves, it’s hard to view the appearance in the United States of The Map and the Territory without the novel’s reception flickering over its surface. Billed as a satire of the contemporary-art world, the book won the Prix Goncourt when published in France two years ago, and Houellebecq was praised for demonstrating a new “maturity.” On the one hand this seemed promising: Houellebecq’s M.O. is to plunge the reader into a universe just slightly off from the one we are used to — the swinger lifestyle and molecular biology; sex tourism; standup comedy, cults, and clones. The esoteric, high-rolling milieu of high art would give him ample opportunity to exercise his gifts for caustic comedy, his appetite for decadence, and his gloomy meditations on global capitalism. On the other hand, however, the idea of a “mature” Houellebecq, one palatable enough to win prizes, is enough to put a reader in mind of Martin Scorsese’s Oscar for The Departed, or Cormac McCarthy’s National Book Award for All the Pretty Horses. Has the vision been lightened, the crucial ugliness purged? The U.S.-based fan has thus been on edge for months, rubbing hands in anticipation, worrying that it’ll all turn out to be a sham, a sellout.
For its first two-thirds, The Map and the Territory will be broadly familiar to readers of Houellebecq: a day-after-tomorrow setting, a globalization-induced dysphoria, brand names, technical details, philosophical musings. From a mostly limited third-person perspective, the book tracks the life of artist Jed Martin. Jed is slightly built and somewhere between reticent and autistic, devoted to his work but lacking the romantic fire one would traditionally associate with that sort of monomania. He lives in Paris but has no pastimes beyond shopping at the hypermarché, and he has little in the way of an inner life. His social relations are equally etiolated. He sees his aging father, a retired architect, perhaps twice a year. His best friend is a tetchy boiler. And he becomes, in stages, an enormous success.
The last section of the book, however, begins with a leap into a new setting and, for Houellebecq, a new genre: the detective story. In a quaint home in a country village, a man and his dog are decapitated. Inch by inch their flesh is cut into long ribbons with surgical precision and strewn around the living room like bloody pappardelle. In case it’s slipped anyone’s mind, we are reminded we are in the realm of French letters when, on arriving at the crime scene, the detective assigned to the case finds his chief junior officer sprawled on the grass outside, reading Aurélia by Gérard de Nerval.
To make his inspection of this grand guignol, the detective, Jasselin, borrows the sophisticated breathing equipment of the forensics team despite his disdain for the unit, who gather their evidence with what he considers an unearned arrogance, ves...read more