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, vested in technologies to which they themselves have contributed nothing. Clad in their gear, he parts the open door’s curtain of flies. “From a fly’s point of view a human corpse is meat, pure and simple,” Jasselin thinks. “If he were going to assess the crime scene without going to pieces, he should, he was clearly aware, adopt the fly’s point of view for a few minutes: the remarkable objectivity of the housefly, Musca domestica.”
So begins the movement toward denouement, with characteristic Houellebecq tropes in a skillful and savage new deployment: anxiety about technology’s displacement of the human coupled with dependency on it; an affinity for the terminological (that dash of Latin in the taxonomic name); a face-to-face with the horrors of the body. Houellebecq displays great aptitude for the detective story, which allows him to get at some of his fundamental concerns. The contemporary police procedural, for example, the modus of CSI ad nauseam, replaces the individual sleuth with the team, and Houellebecq nods to this generational shift with a swift description of Jasselin’s squad, each member given a perfectly one-note aspect. There’s the poetry-reading Ferber, the jovial Lartigue, the dynamic Aurélie, the rookie Messier, and the ethnic Khoury; they lean heavily on the hard-drives-cracking techies and those jerks in forensics, too. The Sam Spades (or if you prefer, Maigrets) of the world are long extinct; no solo operator could command the complex array of analytic and technical tools that solving a crime today requires. The individual is demoted, busted down to buck private, or its equivalent in the gendarmerie.
This loss in status is not limited to the police force, of course; it reflects the entrenchment of corporate structures, and subsequent derogation of the individual, in all aspects of life. Few novelists address this problem more thoroughly than Houellebecq. Here, Jasselin is that figure so common to crime stories, the cop on the verge of retirement, and his reflections on his fate extend well beyond disdain for geeks in hazmat suits. “He implicitly knew, and at their bimonthly interview his division commander sometimes made this explicit, that what was expected from him was now no longer solving crimes, but rather designating his successors, coopting those who, after him, should solve them,” Houellebecq writes. Coopting. Such a curious choice of words, with the association of taking something up and putting it toward vitiating ends. Earlier in the novel, another character makes explicit note of a fact Houellebecq has long insisted on, that humans have become akin to products. And so, as with other goods, our obsolescence has been planned; the system requires it.
These conditions perfectly suit a Houellebecqian take on the whodunit. Mystery is an archetypal modern genre, in part because its compass is the attempt to get to the bottom of the self, which, in the post-Freud, post-Nietzsche, post-Marx way we understand it, is a construct of modern times. Crime requires motive, and motive requires wants and desires (for storytellers, the more tangled the better). Mystery, then, requires psychology; it requires a strong, highly articulated self. In postmodernity, the argument goes, capitalism has surpassed its initial need to have us highly individuated for its function; it has progressed to a point of greater efficiency, whereby instead of expressing unique selves through our consumer choices, we are presented with a set of programmed options and pick from among them. Our selves are merely coarse nets of preference through which an increasingly regressive and benumbed sentience flows. It would appear that, in Houellebecq’s view, explaining crimes requires recourse neither to childhood traumas nor pure evil; rather, such acts are almost invariably utilitarian. Looking back on 30 years as a cop, Jasselin asks himself, “How many times, in that career, had he dealt with a crime that wasn’t motivated by money?” Answer: “He could count them on the fingers of one hand.”
If this all sounds a bit depressing — or, alternatively, a bit overstated — don’t worry; there’s always the sex and the slurs, right? In Houellebecq, the grandiose theorizing tends to fall into place as a backdrop for the shock. That’ll take our minds off things for a while. So bring on the sex-resort suicide bombers, the spine-snapping gang-bangs. Their satanic majesties request the Palestinian orgy sluts.
Request denied. The Map and the Territory really is, as has been advertised, different from Houellebecq’s other books. In my checklist of Houellebecqian commonplaces above, you may have noticed that I omitted “acute bigotry” and “hardcore sex”; that was no oversight. While the book’s not free of squirmy moments for liberal types, there are far fewer than usual, and though hardly sexless, the book is decidedly less licentious than any other novel the author has written. Jed has two girlfriends in the course of the book, one a knockout who turns tricks to work her way through college (maintaining Houellebecq’s signal obsession with prostitutes) and who eventually leaves him for a rich john, the other a glamorous and accomplished Russian (maintaining a running interest in Slavic women) described as “one of the five most beautiful women in Paris.” Their relationship embodies a perfect synergy of the artistic, commercial, and amatory: she works for Michelin and brokers the company’s promotion of Jed’s breakthrough work, a series of exquisite large-scale photographs of maps. Michelin also cuts their relationship short when a promotion sends her back to Moscow.
What’s almost astonishing is that, with an Amazonian beauty at his disposal, Houellebecq leaves the physical relationship between Olga and Jed entirely to the imagination; aside from the line, “Jed softly caressed her round white buttocks,” all we see are a few tender kisses. Before and after her, Jed has a few encounters with escorts, b ut the nuts and bolts are never shown; like The Elementary Particles’ scientist Djerszinski, Jed is largely indifferent to sex. Beyond the wan experiences of our hero, there are a few dirty lines around his publicist, a mousy woman whose life is transformed by vacations to Jamaica where, she says, guys “fucked my brains out”; a well-deployed pair of fake boobs; and a hilarious, sadistic use of the ungainly (poorly translated?) phrase “sperm shower.” Houellebecq is still Houellebecq. But these tiny outbursts do little to color the book overall, and he leaves pornographic assault on the senses out of his paintbox as he renders the spectacle of dehumanization that unfolds around us every day.
So what fills the void left by the excision of sex and outrage? Death, neat. Insofar as The Map and the Territory might represent Houellebecq’s vaunted “maturation” — a factor in its winning the Goncourt — the key development is swapping fucking for dying, orgies and Pattaya brothels for old-age homes and murder scenes. A key plotline is Jed’s father’s aging; he and his son have never been more than distant, seeming to meet only for Christmas dinner. His diagnosis of rectal cancer is conveyed midway through the book with the news that Dad will soon need an artificial anus — Houellebecqian cruelty, squared. We are treated also to a diabolically banal suicide clinic next door to a brothel; to airless old-age homes; to Jed’s mother killing herself when he’s a child. Themes of mortality resound from Chapter One, page one, with a mention that Jed’s earliest drawings in childhood were of flowers. “The beauty of flowers is sad because they are fragile and destined for death, like anything on earth, of course, but flowers are particularly fragile, and like animals their corpse is only a grotesque parody of their vital being, and their corpse, like that of an animal, stinks.” Houellebecq can find the doom in the crayon sketches a parent puts up on a fridge.
With this paradigmatic substitution — cocks to corpses — The Map and the Territory makes it more clear than ever that extreme sex, outlandish misogyny, or insidious homophobia are all devices Houellebecq’s characters rely on to keep themselves from throwing themselves into the abyss. One of the book’s few anxiously un-PC moments is an odd interlude with a couple of gay restaurateurs over semi-cooked lobster and caraway soufflé. At first the scene seems to exist primarily to lampoon a well known French TV personality, married in real life to a much younger former beauty queen, by discussing his putative homosexuality; it leaves one with (sorry) a bad taste in one’s mouth. But this adolescent jibe is paired with a dramatization of the indignities of getting old:
Anthony had put on a bit of weight since their last visit, as was no doubt inevitable; the secretion of testosterone diminishes with age, the level of fat increases; he was reaching the critical age… .
“In the traditional gay scene, they didn’t find it glamorous enough to go into cuisine. For them it was homey, it was too homey, precisely that!” Jed suddenly intuited that Georges was also addressing Anthony’s emerging rolls of fat, that he was beginning to miss an obscure, pre-culinary leather-and-chains past, that it would be best to change the subject.
The couple’s aging alienates them doubly: first from the young, who view them with near terror, as if death itself were a communicable disease, and second from their own sense of who they are. If you define yourself as a horndog, and horndogs can only be young, who are you when you get old? There goes the self again. The implicit analogy is between this older generation’s gay subculture, for whom sex occupied a more central role in identity’s construction, and an increasingly hypersexualized general culture. There goes the self for everybody.
In a 2010 interview in The Paris Review, Houellebecq was blunt about what he found to be the most unspeakable prejudice in our society — “hatred for old people.” “The thing we value most of all is youth,” he went on, “which means that life automatically becomes depressing, because life consists, on the whole, of getting old.” And old age doesn’t just kill you, it kills who you are.
Despite the novel’s advance billing, there’s not really that much about the art world in The Map and the Territory. From a writer who routinely cooks up cult-religion retreats, worlds of clones, sex camps, etc., you would anticipate trips on collector’s yachts (monokinis!), an excursion to the Venice Biennale or Art Basel (gallery simps!), a run-in with a cranky critic on the sidelines of an orgy (an orgy!). But all that appears to fall outside the sphere of the author’s interests. To the degree that he satirizes any milieu, it is not the international art world but that of the French media elite. (This bait-and-switch may represent an acid commentary on the relative primacy of the two spheres, or make an unhappy equation.) Rather than invent new characters or go the roman à clef route, The Map and the Territory makes use of real-life personages, which gives the book’s sprinkling of caricatures (most admittedly lost on U.S. readers) a whetted edge. In addition to that fictionally gay TV personality Jean-Pierre Pernaut, there is media baron Patrick Le Lay (depicted as an ego-bloated drunk); news reader Claire Chazal; Houellebecq’s own editor, Teresa Cremisi; and art critic Patrick Kéchichian (depicted as a religious nut who pens “Jesus-freak shit” in praise of Jed’s oeuvre). The writer Fréderic Beigbeder, who makes a few appearances in the course of the novel, is portrayed as a hysterical coke fiend and called “a sort of Sartre of the 2010s.” Given that he is a real-life friend of Houellebecq’s, the mockery is presumably in good fun.
The author reels in one more figure of note from the real world: the renowned, controversial French author Michel Houellebecq. When Jed completes his crowning achievement, a cycle of paintings depicting the range of human professions in the early twenty-first century, his gallerist suggests he solicit Houellebecq to contribute an essay to the catalogue. Despite having never read his books, Jed becomes quickly taken with him, and thus Houellebecq becomes the attendant spirit of the book’s middle third.
And who is this Michel Houellebecq? He is mercurial, by turns neurotic or even phobic, but also coy and intellectually lively; then horrendously depressed; then vigorous and tranquil once he moves back to the French countryside of his childhood. He drinks moderately, or obliteratingly; he offers disquisitions on Fourier and de Tocqueville as well as obscure figures like the vituperative novelist Jean-Louis Curtis; he weeps over the discontinuation of his favorite outerwear and cultivates bourgeois pastimes like small-potatoes oenophilia: “You do have to be interested in something in life,” he says. “I find it helps.” He is both charming and despondent. He displays a surprising sentimentality toward fellow mammals: the slaughter of pigs should not be allowed, he tells Jed upon meeting him. By the next visit, however, encountered in the depths of depression that keeps him drunk, unwashed, and pajama-clad all day, emptied packages of salumi litter the place, bits of mortadella fleck his bedsheets. “I’ve relapsed,” he moans. “I’ve completely relapsed into charcuterie.”
After a move from isolation in Ireland to his childhood home in the Loiret, this Houellebecq-Bardot adopts a dog, Plato, for whom he professes a philosophical admiration: “A dog already carries within it … a representation of the world,” he propounds, in clever reference to the allegory of the cave. And it is with this vessel of representation that he is killed.
You will forgive me, I hope, dear reader, for thus far playing coy: the victim of that vile murder, whose body is hashed together with that of his pet, is Michel Houellebecq. Whose name means little either to the flies or to Inspector Jasselin, remediated by his deputy:
At his superior’s lack of reaction, he explained, “He’s a writer. Well, he was a writer. He was very well known.”
Ah, well, the famous writer was now a nutritional support for numerous maggots, thought Jasselin.
This final bit of self-mortification on the author’s part well, there is also the funeral, whose directors are revealed to have cheaply dumped the scraps of Houellebecq’s body into a child’s coffin caps off a complex self-portrait. From the first it resounds with mockery, but of whom? The real-life Houellebecq has frequently complained about being caricatured in the press, but he has also acknowledged a complicity in this caricaturing. Readers never seem to know quite how to take him, how much is serious and how much is comic, how much is the thoughtful advancing of propositions and how much is classic French provocation-cum-argument. In The Map and the Territory, the author seems to have enjoyed creating a version of himself that alternates between a hilarious fulfillment of stereotype and a refusal of it. Is this an attack on the press or a reprimand to the reader who might buy into their clichés? Is he simply trying the best he can to give a well rounded portrayal of who he thinks he is? Or is he saying that the feedback loop of public and private identity makes it impossible to distinguish the real from its representations? What was the title of this book again?
Houellebecq’s handling of himself as a character, as well as his use of French media-industry figures, underscores a fundamental point about contemporary identity: One must achieve a distance from oneself in order to achieve a self. This might sound like something from Lacan, but one need do no more than murmur “Facebook,” “YouTube,” or “blog” to suggest the phenomenon’s new, hyper-contemporary dimensions. The author Houellebecq often refers to his fictional avatar not by name but with such designations as “the author of Platform” and “the poet of The Pursuit of Happiness.” He does the same with his friend Beigbeder — “the author of 99 Francs,” “the author of A French Novel.” If identity is just an amalgam of data tags, better they exist in a cybernetic relation with a public that constantly reaffirms them. Celebs are just another of Houellebecq’s beloved brand-name items, their self-objectification morphing readily into self-love. As Jed’s art dealer observes, it’s no accident that he becomes rich and famous for his Professions series, since it includes numerous depictions of the wealthy and the powerful — i.e., the very class of consumers who buy artworks that start at €500. Jean-Pierre Pernault, whom we eventually meet in person, tells Jed he tried to buy his own portrait, only to be outbid by billionaire and luxury-good magnate François Pinault.
All Houellebecq’s books cast author figures as their leading men. In The Map and the Territory he cuts out the middleman by casting himself. That brings the book’s count to two, Jed being a societally estranged, creatively inclined Houellebecq protagonist par excellence. A similar setup anchored The Elementary Particles — not coincidentally, perhaps, Houellebecq’s best book other than this one — where the yin/yang main characters are brothers. Here the pair’s characterizations are less dichotomous and their relationship surprising, mostly in that it develops at all. The Houellebecq character fails to resolve entirely and is interpersonally opaque, but Jed feels stirrings of a real connection nevertheless. It’s the sort of thing he’s never experienced, not even with Olga. Like a lover, he gushes to Houellebecq: “You’ve become important for me, and what’s more … that’s happened so quickly!” Later, on the day of the Professions vernissage, which he assumes (correctly) that the writer will not attend, he thinks wistfully of his fellow devotee of prepackaged foods and granular data while killing time in a grocery store: “How nice it would have been to visit this refurbished Casino hypermarket together, to nudge each other and point out the sections of completely new products, or particularly clear and exhaustive nutritional labeling?” In compensation for the catalogue essay, Houellebecq agrees to accept a portrait of himself by Jed, which the latter pursues avidly, announcing that he wants it to be his finest work. “There’s something in your eyes, I don’t know what, but I believe I can transcribe it,” he tells Houellebecq. The declaration is immediately followed with this: “The word passion suddenly crossed Jed’s mind.”
But who has Jed fallen for? For the rest of the book, with Michel Houellebecq using “Michel Houellebecq” as a literary readymade, the number one takeaway about identity is that people are experienced only via mediated distortions of themselves, whatever poor things those selves are. Jed’s truncated relationship with Houellebecq falls tantalizingly outside this framework. He barely knows who Houellebecq “is,” since he barely pays attention to mass media, aside from very occasional game shows, cartoons, and Tour de France telecasts. Indeed, he never bothers to read Houellebecq’s books. Rather, Jed crushes out on someone he meets a handful of times, writes to a few times, and talks to on the phone; it is an old-fashioned model for the way we make a mental construct of someone else’s personality. This older mode of relationship is certainly susceptible to the projection of fantasies and wish-fulfillments: with Houellebecq, Jed has that profound yet banal experience of feeling that a particular person can supply you with an answer to an unknown question. “A writer must have some kind of knowledge about life,” he thinks, “or at least make you believe he does.” When he gets the news of Houellebecq’s death, he reflects, “He had always had in his head the idea that they were destined to see each other again, many times, and perhaps to become friends, insofar as that term was appropriate to people like them.” In both of these quoted sentences, the closing clauses show a degree of self-awareness, self-possession; perhaps they are to hint that Jed’s sense of affinity with Houellebecq is accurate. Neither he nor we ever know.
Given the book’s mood, Houellebecq’s murder could of course be akin to a wish-fulfillment for the author himself, let alone for the character. The abyss is so bleak, one might as well throw oneself into it as contemplate it. With Houellebecq cast as an answer-man and surrogate daddy, it is no coincidence that Jed receives the phone call relaying the news of the murder on the heels of Jed’s father’s announcement that he has decided to be euthanized at a clinic in Switzerland. Jed succeeds in forestalling his father’s action, but only for a couple of months: Come December — time to plan the holiday meal — Jed rings the nursing home and finds, to no surprise, that his father has checked himself out, destination Zurich. Houellebecq has always thrived by juxtaposition, and Inspector Jasselin’s impending retirement, his planned obsolescence, falls into a grim parallel with Jean-Pierre Martin’s reaction to our society’s treatment of the elderly. We quarantine them, and they soon find not only their lives but their very selves unbearable. Killing yourself seems like the best option in a social system that has streamlined itself to make everyone ultimately dispensable. As it happens, Jasselin and his female companion are childless; the cop shoots blanks. The couple rejects both adoption and in vitro in favor of a time-honored substitution: they move outside the death-plagued human order and get a dog.
For its first two-thirds The Map and the Territory is erratic. It can be entertaining, disordered, ruminative, wider in range than Houellebecq’s previous books but less penetrating and less cutting, or oppressively hopeless, which I mean as praise. It has the feeling of something not bad but minor. As it gears toward the discovery of Houellebecq’s killer and follows Jed’s flight into Switzerland after his father, however, it builds in scope and gravity across one of the best stretches of writing in Houellebecq’s oeuvre. He makes the facts surrounding the death truly strange, disturbing, powerful, and ambiguous. Though to go into detail would ruin Houellebecq’s perfectly crafted revelation and denouement, the book’s conclusion is both awful and, against all likelihood, realistic.
Bildungsroman, satire, crime drama, The Map and the Territory splices these templates without showing a seam. And then, in the end, with the irrationality of Houellebecq’s murder, the meticulous yet exuberant desecration of his corpse, the refusal to allow the killer’s behavior to resolve into something entirely comprehensible — all of this tilts the book over suddenly into yet another genre: horror. If mystery is fundamentally about investigating the self, horror, as an offshoot of romanticism, is about a negative sublime, about encountering something greater than yourself and being annihilated. Remember, Houellebecq is the author of a book-length study of H.P. Lovecraft; in fact, the state of the corpses in The Map and the Territory recalls a scene in Lovecraft’s 1931 novella At the Mountains of Madness, right down to the mingling of dog and human. Lovecraft made clear that beyond the commonplace horrors we could grasp through reason lies an infinite horror beyond all human understanding, “realms whose mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes,” as he put it in “The Colour Out of Space.” In The Map and Territory, Houellebecq makes clear that he sees two kinds of horror as well, which form his two great themes. First there is capitalism, which envelops us and inhabits us and corrodes everything about ourselves we consider human. Beyond that there’s something far worse, from which not even Marx can save us. It is the annihilating indifference of the universe, from which we have so much divorced ourselves that our ability to understand it gets weaker and weaker. We can neither escape nor comprehend. It will make us die and die as ignorant as any other animal. This is the horror we cannot wrap our heads around and which makes us go mad to look at too long.