Michel Houellebecq, The Map and the Territory. Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95 (cloth)
It’s become something of a joke: when you reach for a Michel Houellebecq novel, you brace yourself. For what? Shock, goes one pat answer. Boredom, goes the other.
Both are somewhat disingenuous. On the grand scale of literary excesses, Houellebecq’s stylistic and sexual offenses are trifling. He’s no Marquis de Sade, no D. H. Lawrence, no Joseph Conrad, no Robert Musil. Yet, together, these answers get at the heart of what might make you keep turning his pages no matter how much effort it takes.
Houellebecq’s prose shows a heightened self-awareness about excitement. His characters study stimulating pleasures—sex, usually—like a set of impossibly difficult equations. How many sexual acts equal a happy week, a happy year, a happy marriage? How many satisfying ones in sequence do you have stamina for? (The Elementary Particles: “By violently contracting the muscle and inhaling deeply just before orgasm, it was possible to avoid ejaculating. . . . it was a goal, something worth working toward.”)
The characters seem to fear that they can avoid tedium only by responding to such questions. But answers are not forthcoming: Houellebecq’s eager but clueless hedonists make getting to them seem impossible. The perspective from which Houellebecq recounts their thoughts—a perspective that’s both surgically detached and disarmingly, dirtily intimate—puts the reader in a similar state of awkward self-analysis. As sex scene after sex scene comes into view, you’re not invited properly to enjoy anything, yet are made constantly to ponder your potential pleasures in a way that feels sordid. Never has boredom been so terribly shocking.
Houellebecq is calling us out. Through this shock and boredom, he points to a double forgetfulness or inattentiveness: we forget how to enjoy things and how to seek anything but enjoyment. He pushes us toward panic as we watch careless hedonism wreak havoc in the worlds he represents. The Elementary Particles (1998) follows a geneticist revered for making humanity impotent and a sex addict whose love games break his favorite lover’s spinal cord. In Platform (2001) and The Possibility of an Island (2005), fervently pleasure-seeking characters get brainwashed, exhaust themselves in orgies, or get a dog and watch it die before they do.
Houellebecq’s most recent novel, The Map and the Territory, continues in this self-conscious, pleasure-driven vein. But it lacks the relentlessness of his past fiction. We’re still being attuned to white noise between boredom and excitement, but this white noise is down to a hum. Map is about small pleasures and short tediums, not hedonistic hells and heavens. It’s about feeling somewhat excited about something you’d forgotten you enjoy, then falling back into oblivious ennui. And rather than upbraid us for our forgetfulness, Houellebecq merely studies its rhythms—its delays, longings, blind spots, and foreshortenings. He shows how little we can rely on our recollection, but then he also acknowledges with some tenderness how memory’s sparks and lulls sustain us all the same.
Map’s protagonist, Jed Martin, is a French artist. Aside from one long digression, all that the novel treats you to is his life and career. Both Jed’s existence and Houellebecq’s way of conveying it are structured by patterns of partial recalling and forgetting. These patterns always make Jed seem a little bored and inattentive—repeatedly, he needs to be shaken back into enthusiasm. At the same time these patterns of memory draw attention to each quantum of excitement Houellebecq manages to revive in Jed. You’re struck by how imprecise and ephemeral these excitements are, but nevertheless how grandly expressive or seductive.
Houellebecq acknowledges with some tenderness how memorys sparks and lulls sustain us.
The everyday tends to find Jed vague and listless. “He hadn’t been unhappy in this bedroom, or very happy, either” is a typical introspection. Immediately after people and objects disappear from his life, he seems unshaken; their absence does not pierce through his general oblivion. Instead, flashes of greatest grief, happiness, and longing come to Jed months and sometimes years after the periods they illuminate. He feels passion for his lover Olga most intensely not while they are together, and not as they decide to part, but some time after he has lost her, when he unthinkingly walks over to her former flat and recalls her favorite song:
Jed shivered, feeling an irrepressible crisis coming on, and when he remembered the words of ‘Hello Lovers’ he began to cry.
Likewise, he finds out about the deaths of the two men he’s closest to, his father and Michel Houellebecq (the author’s pseudo-autobiographical alter ego), some time after they’ve passed. His reactions to both losses are even more delayed.
Jed’s flashbacks are not exactly Proustian. They accomplish both too much and too little to qualify as siblings of the madeleine. His backward looks are always thrilling and altering, almost excessively so. Yet as acts of memory they seem self-absorbed and inaccurate, equally remarkable for what they omit and how quickly they fade as for what they manage to recall. Whenever the shock of nostalgic recognition hits Jed it becomes physical, and his body can hardly bear it. The first time he and Olga meet after a long separation, he throws up: “Feeling the nausea rising, he ran out into the courtyard and vomited on a dwarf palm tree.” When he retroactively realizes he has witnessed Houellebecq’s corpse, Jed collapses into a chair, “trembling and shaking with spasms.”
These bodily shocks often serve as inspirations for Jed’s artworks. They make him unimaginably rich and famous—“If I sell now, . . . we’ll make thirty million euros, approximately,” his agent calculates after one vernissage. Such transformations of memory into bodily, artistic, fiscal substance are grand but also comically disproportionate. Because his grief materializes in dramatic but also dramatically disparate ways, it feels imprecise, at once exaggerated and sold short.
Jed also never seems able to hold on to states of longing and recognition. It’s as if they were never exciting enough to sustain his attention beyond their initial material tremor. His sicknesses are vivid but brief. His art projects take months to complete, but then he sells each piece almost at once and hardly touches the money. If he is reunited with a lost object or person—he and Olga meet again, and he retrieves a stolen, emotionally charged portrait of Houellebecq—he parts with them within days or hours. Frédéric Beigbeder, a friend of Jed’s, often voices displeasure at this blasé fickleness. “You let her go back to Russia. . . . And you never gave her any news . . . . Love is rare. Didn’t you know that? Have you never been told that?” Olga provides similar lessons, more kindly: “‘Little Frenchman,’ she added with gentle reproach. ‘Little indecisive Frenchman.’”
Like his enthusiasms, Jed’s creative process is a series of oscillations between blinding obsession and equally blinding, destructive regret about his obsessions’ insufficiently exciting objects:
He was making a truly shitty painting. He seized a palette knife, cut open Damien Hirst’s eye, and forced the gash wider; it was a canvas of tight linen fibers, and therefore very tough.
Thematically, Jed is an artist of partial throwbacks. He portrays the contemporary professions like a latter-day Diego Rivera. His serial photographs of roadmaps and metal objects sound like a cross—who knew this was possible?—between Edward Weston and Andy Warhol. But each backward look is spattered with anachronisms; it’s always as nonchalant about the past as it is touched by a chunk of it. The professionals Jed portrays are high-tech businessmen, contemporary artists, and computer engineers, not harvesters or factory workers. He takes his photos with state-of-the-art digital cameras. In all these contexts, his boredom and excitement are shaped by varieties of forgetfulness or inattention, leading to sensations that feel partial. They’re either too vivid or too dull to qualify as knowledge, to be measured by any criterion other than the brief pleasures they help to protect or augment. Houellebecq makes you marvel at how flimsy these sensations and their attendant pleasures are—but also at the rich life they can apparently bring into being.
Our own nostalgia is as imprecise and mismatched as Jed’s. Houellebecq shapes his story out of many interweaving social and aesthetic reminiscences. Amid all the allusions, it becomes hard—to use the novel’s phrase—to tell the map apart from the territory. We wonder if Houellebecq’s nostalgic filters lead us astray, if Jed’s life would look or feel different if it were told more conventionally. The novel’s focus soon becomes neither Jed himself nor a longing for a coherent forgotten cultural moment, but rather a mosaic of shortcuts, anachronisms, and odd angles of vision that attempts to foreground and harness the pleasures of forgetting and recalling in themselves. Over and again, Houellebecq surprises you with how imprecisely grounded his novel’s pleasurable reminiscences are, yet he also makes you yearn for them.
We arent ready to be nostalgic for email.
Houellebecq’s style slips into datedness in ways that seem intended to give you surges of recalled recognition, but also partly to blur or veil this recognition’s objects. The novel does not center its affections on a single lost cultural period. Rather it runs through a series of field tests (often strikingly successful) in how a variety of periods and cultural tropes can vivify its represented world.
Each of Map’s excursions into nostalgia takes us back to a different point in time. The story of Jed’s youth is flavored by the mocking sociologies of Flaubert or Stendhal:
This sense of a slightly old-fashioned seriousness was going to make a favorable impression on the teachers who had to examine his application for admission to the Beaux-Arts; they were obviously dealing with a candidate who was original, cultivated, serious, and probably hard-working.
When a detective tracks Houellebecq’s murderer, Map sounds like a film noir or a Patricia Highsmith novel:
Jasselin and Ferber were both quite good at funerals. Often dressed in somber colors, slightly emaciated, and with a naturally pale complexion, Ferber had no difficulty in putting on the sadness and gravitas required in these circumstances; as for Jasselin, his exhausted, resigned attitude of a man who knows life, and no longer has any illusions about it, was also completely appropriate.
And so on: when Jed and Olga spend their brief happy time together traveling, their romps around the French countryside recall mid-century automobile ads and Michelin guides. When Jed talks to his coworkers, and especially later when he retires to his country mansion, we get hints of Citizen Kane and similar films Kane spawned.
The old literary conventions Houellebecq imitates do not entirely overtake his trademark deadpan or his beloved passive voice—“A consensus was quickly reached on this subject [of love on TV] and Anthony poured another round of Bas-Armagnac.” The narrative keeps reminding us of what it was like for films and novels to flow a certain way, but never allows us to settle into familiar grooves. Amid partial suggestions of the literary and cinematic past, you’re never sure if what’s sparking your excitement, or pushing you into boredom, is Houellebecq’s own voice or the dated one he’s imitating.
Moreover, while Map’s cultural affections never move beyond Andy Warhol, the novel is insistently set in the immediate present. By the time Jed prepares his first major exhibit, Barack Obama has already been elected president. Jed paints Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates. Jed and Michel Houellebecq the character (whose age seems to match Houellebecq’s age at the time of writing) send each other emails and use Photoshop. Jed sells his expensive artworks on the Internet. These people and technologies are still so new that it’s strange to see them in a piece of fiction, especially one that stresses its own datedness. We aren’t ready to be nostalgic for email, at least not yet.
Such glaring temporal mismatches draw your attention to the imprecision or downright artificiality of Map’s flashbacks and of any pleasures that could come from them. Houellebecq plays up this artificiality. He begins the novel with one such transparent trompe l’oeil. The opening line seems to portray Jeff Koons as a living, breathing person: “Jeff Koons had just got up from his chair, enthusiastically throwing his arms out in front of him.” Only a few sentences later does Houellebecq let us know that this energetic Jeff Koons is not a character but a figure in Jed’s oil painting. The twist is so well paced that for a moment it might excite you. The painting is clearly fictional; it’s also campy. Even so, to see a man we’ve seen on the daily news transform himself from a person into a sort of icon makes both him and the contemporary times he stands for seem exciting in new, unusual ways. This tiny spell of nostalgia is just as obviously constructed as it is obviously pleasurable. And it is constructed out of nothing, or next to nothing: a string of hypotheticals, a famous name, a canvas we don’t even see.
Houellebecq also creates some comically blatant time warps. Most prominently, when Michel Houellebecq the character dies within the novel, the real-life Michel Houellebecq keeps writing it. It stuns you even more to realize in what year the novel appears to end and when, by its inner timeframe, it would need to have been written. Since Houellebecq dies around 2011 and Jed outlives him by at least two decades, Jed Martin’s passing falls sometime in the 2030s. This means the retroactive account we are reading would have been written well in the second half of the twenty-first century. The joke is on us: we got so buried in happily recalling our parents’ and grandparents’ entertainments we hardly noticed we’ve been reading science fiction that seems nostalgic for our present moment.
Houellebecq highlights this last contradiction not just to mock our credulity, but also to make us feel a little insincere. Map ironically presents itself as a biography written by and for admirers of Jed. The narrator hails seemingly insignificant stages in Jed’s life as steps toward his great future achievement:
In his desire to give an exhaustive view of the productive sector of the society of his time, Jed Martin was inevitably, at one moment or another in his career, going to portray an artist.
The plot is also peppered with quotations from academics who study him after his death. In these admiring gestures we are implicitly included among Jed’s acolytes, as if we reach for the book because he is already part of our cultural past. This false memory of Jed suggests that learning about his life in detail should be important and illuminating in a larger personal and historical sense. But we don’t have anything like the long-standing personal connection to Jed that this framing imputes to us. The surges of nostalgia the novel might give us do not carry with them any real knowledge either about our younger selves or about any being who lived before or alongside us.
“Was he experiencing a feeling of friendship for Houellebecq?” Jed asks himself midway through the novel. “That would be an exaggeration. Jed didn’t think he was capable of such a feeling.” His self-questioning has both a needy and a disaffected ring. It’s as if he were holding in tweezers a want he finds trifling but is all the same overwhelmed by.
Map makes you tread a similar line between confidence and fragility. There’s a hyper-refined quality to its balances of forgetful boredoms and excitements that makes the novel feel dandyishly blasé and pleasure-seeking. But this framework is also undergirded by a vulnerable hunger. To escape our boredom, we grab on to flagrantly inappropriate substitutes of the past we claim to be enjoying. Letting them move us to any mental effort feels childish in a way we don’t seem able to control or even take proper stock of.
These awkwardly, hesitantly eager enjoyments bring me back to the discomforts of Houellebecq’s prior novels. But they also bring out the difference between Map and his more sex-crazed works. While Map might be quite a bit more cynical than it seems on the surface, it wears its cynicism lightly. In previous books Houellebecq charges you with apocalyptic, pornographic self-indulgence. In Map he still tries to show us something about our pleasures, if we care to notice, but he has left behind his customary tools of shock, disgust, and titillation. Our narrator is enjoying his forgetful boredoms and excitements for what they can give him, and there is no harm done, it seems, if we do, too. In tapping into nostalgia, Map also finally gets at the elephant in the room of Houellebecq’s earlier rages. The yearning for the past that Map both celebrates and questions now seems to have long driven Houellebecq’s fiction. This strain of humane self-awareness makes Map a breezier read than his prior novels, but also a more sophisticated one.