29 February 2012

Ancient Curse

  • Michel Houellebecq. The Map and the Territory. Knopf, January 2012.

The Map and the Territory is the fifth novel by the French misanthrope and provocateur Michel Houellebecq. At this stage in his career, there is a checklist of flaws that any balanced reviewer is more or less obliged to go through when discussing Houellebecq’s work, so let me get those out of the way. The outlook in these novels is caustic and limited; the world they represent is most often vile when it isn’t sickeningly dull; life is an ordeal of disappointment, spurious pain, and loneliness, occasionally relieved by moments of erotic joy (but joy that eventually becomes misery, because it cannot be preserved). The books take rather too much satisfaction in pandering to racial and sexual bigotry, made worse by the fact that this pandering seldom seems to serve any genuine artistic purpose and comes off instead as a rote effort to offend. There’s nothing necessarily illegitimate about art that expresses hateful or offensive ideas, but the effect is demeaning if the work isn’t well-made, and Houellebecq can be a very lazy writer. He turns characters into mouthpieces for semi-digestible sociological theories; he exaggerates beyond plausibility; his plots are melodramas; he is inconsistent—at once a sentimentalist and a cynic—and aside from the novel that first brought him fame (his second, The Elementary Particles) his stories do not hold up to re-reading particularly well.

It remains an open question how much of the venom in his books Houellebecq really “means”—it is fiction, after all—but his ideas coalesce around a number of fixed points. One of these is the atomization of the Western family, which Houellebecq traces back to the sexual revolution and the greed and self-indulgence it bequeathed. The result is a society that operates on fatalistic hedonism: a grotesquely wised-up world where joy is reserved for the young, the sexually free, and the desirable. “What I think, fundamentally, is that you can’t do anything about major societal changes,” Houellebecq said in his Paris Review interview. “It may be regrettable that the family unit is disappearing. You could argue that it increases human suffering. But regrettable or not, there’s nothing we can do. That’s the difference between me and a reactionary.” Whenever Houellebecq’s protagonists happen to be fathers they tend to view their children with a kind of baffled contempt, if they don’t see them as parasites and rivals. “Kids are a trap, they are the enemy,” spits one character; “you have to pay for them all your life—and they outlive you.” Daniel, the embittered comedian who stars in The Possibility of an Island, informs us that “a child is a sort of vicious dwarf, innately cruel, who combines the worst features of the species, and from whom domestic pets keep a wise distance.”  No hope in either direction.

Yet for all his manifest limitations Houellebecq is a writer who bears thinking about—one of few to have emerged from Europe in the last twenty years with any real claim to importance. It is dispiriting that such a preeminent novelist should also be such a tawdry one, and pointless to deny that much of Houellebecq’s force as a writer derives from his ability to tap into base instincts. Still, he isn’t a fraud. His best prose has a crystalline brutality to it—elemental and unyielding. He can be funny and charming (not to mention a viciously good satirist) when he chooses to be, and compassionate, too. While the theories his characters expound may seem implausible or repellent or both, the dominant mood Houellebecq conjures can feel awfully familiar: not so much malice as bitterness, festering in anxiety and boredom. 

Suffice to say, a large part of what makes Houellebecq such a compelling point-of-thought is how bluntly ambitious he is with ideas. Julian Barnes captured it well when he said that The Elementary Particles was a story that “hunted big game” where the competition was happy to shoot rabbits. Here is Houellebecq describing the novel in The Paris Review:

The real inspiration was the experiments of Alain Aspect in 1982. They demonstrated the EPR paradox: that when particles interact, their destinies become linked. When you act on one, the effect spreads instantly to the other, even if they are great distances apart. That really struck me, to think that if two things are connected once, they will be forever. It marks a fundamental philosophical shift. Ever since the disappearance of religious belief, the current reigning philosophy has been materialism, which says we are alone and reduces humanity to biology. Man as calculable as billiard balls and completely perishable. That worldview is undermined by the EPR paradox. So the novel was inspired by this idea of what could be the next metaphysical mutation. It has to be less depressing than materialism. Which, let’s face it, is pretty depressing.

Just how depressing our “reigning philosophy” is has been Houellebecq’s theme throughout (something I’ve explored at greater length in a book: Anti-Matter: Michel Houellebecq and Depressive Realism). People are more or less happy while health and sex last, then more or less unhappy once they’ve gone. And you are alone. Those are the sums. “Since my childhood,” remarks Daniel towards the end of The Possibility of an Island, “the idea that concluded all discussions, that put an end to all disagreements, the idea around which I had most often seen an absolute peaceful consensus from, could be summed up pretty much as follows: ‘Essentially, you’re born alone, you live alone, and you die alone.’ Accessible even to the simplest minds, this sentence was also the conclusion of the nimblest thinkers; it provided in all circumstances unanimous approval . . .”


The engine of Houellebecq’s fiction to date has been the relentless pressure—and the vast frustration—of desire in a capitalistic, permissive society. Houellebecq’s debut novel, the slim and comparatively ornate Whatever, contains the first formulation of his theory of sex-as-market-enterprise, which has become what must be one of the most quoted passages in contemporary literature: 

Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women, others with none. It’s what’s known as “the law of the market.” In a totally liberal economic system certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude. 

In later novels this conception of sex as a balance sheet of satisfactions and restrictions is recast and tested in various ways. In The Elementary Particles, Djerzinski’s scientific research leads to a breakthrough in genetic engineering and ushers in a new, asexual, neo-human epoch. In Platform, the main characters work for a multinational tourist company and try to provide a free-market answer in the form of organized sex-tourism. The Possibility of an Island ultimately rejects any solution at all, giving itself over to the imperatives of a society where ugliness, aging, and undesirability rob life of everything that gives it true meaning or joy. Unfortunately, as Houellebecq has seemed to lose patience with anything peripheral to his theoretical project, his novels have also lost those qualities (wit, pity) that gave them their third dimension; hence the diminishing returns from his work, which by the end of his fourth novel seemed to have strangled itself. 

The advent of The Map and the Territory therefore marks something of a threshold for Houellebecq. After the barren conclusion to The Possibility of an Island it is difficult to see how his original carriage of ideas could be driven any further. But what else does he have to say? “In literature and music, it’s downright impossible to change direction, you’re certain to get lynched,” observes one character in the new novel. “On the one hand, if you always do the same thing, you’re accused of repeating yourself and being in decline, but if you change you’re accused of being an incoherent dilettante.” This comment about incoherent dilettantism is something The Map and the Territory comes dangerously close to validating: the novel is a hodgepodge of social criticism, art-world satire, cantankerous-old-man complaining, postmodernist teasing (“Michel Houellebecq” appears as a prominent character), and police procedural. As the above quote suggests, Houellebecq is amusingly self-aware about much of this—even if self-awareness doesn’t cancel the problem. 

The first of Houellebecq’s novels since The Elementary Particles to be written in the third-person, The Map and the Territory recounts the life of a successful French artist named Jed Martin. Martin bears some trace resemblance to Houellebecq’s former heroes: he is well-read, for one thing, and possesses a deep emotional neutrality that recalls Michel Djerzinski or the human clones in The Possibility of an Island. Jed’s lack of affect, a condition that sometimes “made him wonder if he belonged to the human race,” is encapsulated in the following:

Jed wasn’t young . . . but he was a relatively inexperienced man. In terms of human beings he only knew his father, and still not very well. From what he had been able to observe, the existence of men was organised around work, which occupied most of life, and took place in organisations of variable dimension. At the end of the years of work opened a briefer period, marked by the development of various pathologies. Moreover, some human beings, during the most active period of their lives, tried to associate in micro-groups called families, with the aim of reproducing the species; but these attempts, most often, came to a sudden end, for reasons linked to ‘the nature of things,’ he thought vaguely while sharing an espresso with his lover.

Although Jed is not chaste, he has none of the lecherous mania that characterizes Houellebecq’s more vivid protagonists. Aside from a passage in the first section of the story, Houellebecq largely abandons his riffs on sexual sociology. Instead, The Map and Territory is a surprisingly earnest story about artistic vocation. “Jed devoted his life (or at least his professional life, which quite quickly became the whole of his life) to art, to the production of representations of the world, in which people were never meant to live.” The story follows his career from student to aspiring professional to global superstar to reclusive legend. (In addition, about two-thirds of the way through, the novel takes an unlikely swerve into the realm of crime thrillers—more about this later.)

Each phase of Jed’s life corresponds to a distinct shift in his mode of work. In the beginning, as part of his application for art school, he composes a series of understated, formal photographs of machine components. Jed starts to make money selling these pictures, but as his activity becomes more lucrative he loses interest in the work, “as if the fact that he had come to photograph these objects for a purely professional and commercial aim invalidated any possibility of using them in a creative project.” His first period of mature work begins when, on the way to his grandmother’s funeral, he buys a Michelin Departments road map of the area. Unfolding it, the artist has “his second great aesthetic revelation . . . Never had he contemplated an object as magnificent, as rich in emotion and meaning as this 1/150th 000-scale Michelin map of the Creuse and Haute-Vienne.” In a state of “nervous frenzy” he buys up Michelin maps and begins taking lavishly stylised photographs of them. Displayed in an exhibition at his art school, the pictures are spotted by Olga Sheremoyova, a Russian émigré—“one of the five most beautiful women in Paris”— who works as a representative of Michelin. Jed is sponsored and set on course for fame; his breakout show entitled “THE MAP IS MORE INTERESTING THAN THE TERRITORY.” 

Olga and Jed become lovers. For a brief, thinly-described time they are happy together—a life that seemed to foreshadow the “epicurean, peaceful, refined but unsnobbish happiness that Western society offered the representatives of its middle-to-upper classes in middle age.” But the affair ends when Olga’s career takes her back to Russia, and this in turn inspires Jed’s next burst of creativity. Abandoning photography, he takes up oil painting and begins a series of sixty-five pictures, a project known as the “Professions” series. These paintings—each depicting either a professional at his or her place of work or an encounter between business leaders—begin with Ferdinand Desroches, Horse Butcher and include pieces such as Amiée, Escort Girl and Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology. There is a portrait of Jed’s father: The Architect Jean-Pierre Martin Leaving the Management of his Business. The project also brings Jed into contact with the author Michel Houellebecq (“he stank a little, but less than a corpse”) who is hired to write an essay for the catalogue of the opening show. Michel Houellebecq, Writer is the last painting in the series.

As its title suggests, The Map and the Territory has matters of representation on its mind, something that indirectly links it to its predecessors. The meta-question that haunts Houellebecq’s earlier novels is what they imagine the point of art to be. Consistently, their main characters dismiss art as trivial or superfluous next to the simplicity of biological urge (literature, as the narrator of Whatever memorably has it, is “pure bullshit”). While this makes sense in the context of the reductive materialism that animates those stories, it also creates a lacuna: what’s the point of these novels, then? The trouble is all the more acute for an author like Houellebecq, whose theoretical bones lie so close to his skin. The Map and the Territory represents the first time he has approached this question explicitly in his fiction. Jed Martin—for all intents and purposes stripped of earthly desire—plays the part of the pure-hearted artist, driven from one medium to the next by the vagaries of his inspiration, unmoved by sex or material success. In one sense, the novel is an exercise in trying to imagine what the motivations of such a character could possibly be. 

What ultimately made Houellebecq’s hedonistic characters so unhappy was the very endlessness of desire, and it seems as if the malice of capitalism is that it replicates the same ceaseless hunger. (“Of all economic systems capitalism is unquestionably the most natural,” states Whatever. “This already suffices to show that it is bound to be the worst.”) The Map and the Territory gives the impression that Houellebecq means to juxtapose the durability of artifice with the perpetual flow of capital and biological drive. Instead of the materialism that reduces human beings to their appetites and perishability, he evokes the world of manmade things that frame and survive individual life (something that also relates to one of the primordial appeals of artistic creation: the urge to withstand time; to make something that might earn a life beyond one’s years). In the older novels, Houellebecq’s protagonists typically perceive their working lives as pointless and ineffectual. Incapable of building anything, the only thing it makes sense for them to attach meaning to is pleasure—employment being at best a means to an end and at worst a profitless leech of time. By contrast, Jed’s effort to map society through its components, products and producers doubles as an oblique attempt to give dignity and substance to human industry. Much of The Map and the Territory comes to us as a history, in the form of brief summaries of what future art historians and critics make of Jed Martin’s work. These commentators note that all the artist’s creations present themselves “as an homage to human labour.” There are pointed discussions between characters of bygone social theorists—Marx, William Morris, Charles Fourier—all of whom attached a motive higher than profit to work. 

But while Houellebecq pays tribute to men who seemed to view society as an invention that could be refashioned and improved, the world he depicts is also, unmistakably, one in which utopian hopes have been dashed. “It’s curious,” remarks Jed’s father—a thwarted artist, whose stifled relationship with his son provides several of the story’s more touching moments—“you might think that the need to express yourself, to leave a trace in the world, is a powerful force, yet in general that’s not enough. What works best, what pushes people most violently to surpass themselves, is still the pure and simple need for money.” Money is everywhere in The Map and the Territory, petrifying everything it touches. In college, Jed dates a girl who pays her tuition by working as a prostitute, and he reflects upon his curious lack of concern about this. “As soon as it is concluded with a financial transaction,” he thinks, “any sexual activity is excused, rendered inoffensive, and in some way sanctified by the ancient curse of work.” Jed’s agent declares that art has reached a stage, “where success in market terms justifies and validates anything, replacing all the theories. No one is capable of seeing further, absolutely no one.” The world of contemporary art provides the bleakest confirmation of the novel’s cynicism. What other industry has been so adulterated and supercharged by money? 

On the novel’s first page Jed struggles to paint Jeff Koons, whom, he thinks, “seemed to carry in him something dual, like an insurmountable contradiction between the basic cunning of the technical sales rep and the exhalation of the ascetic.” This abominable mix of low expediency and high purity is a cognitive knot The Map and the Territory circles. It brings to mind Hito Steyerl’s bitter remark that contemporary art is, in practice, little more than an answer to the question, “How can capitalism be made more beautiful?” The question of how to protect artistic integrity from the sway of money is scarcely a new one, but in a time and place where capitalism has become almost a fully naturalized fact of existence it has become increasingly difficult even just to articulate what this separation would involve. Work of all varieties has increasingly come to resemble some kind of art—if not in terms of “creative content” then in the matters of advertising, packaging, and presentation. At the same time, the business of the modern artist is itself an exemplary form of cutting-edge enterprise: dependent on brand-identity, self-commodification, opportunism, novelty, relentless networking, and a heavily blurred line between life and work. At the highest end of the market, the products may as well be euphemisms for money. Cynicism, charlatanism and disposability follow artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons around like a stench. And yet jaw-dropping fortunes are made. So who knows best? In this kind of world only a man like Jed Martin, close to inhuman, could possibly avoid the stain of compromise.

But is the nullity of Jed’s persona wholly by design, or does it simply attest to how much difficulty Houellebecq has trying to imagine a character existing outside the economies of pleasure? Either way, it is hard to call The Map and the Territory a triumph. Much of the blame for this has to be laid with Houellebecq’s (by now dismayingly characteristic) carelessness. Even more than his previous books, The Map and the Territory is loaded with ponderous sarcasm (italicized, in the style of Flaubert about middle-class manners, a tactic that wears out long before it goes away). Characterization has never been a strong point of Houellebecq’s, and in fairness it hasn’t needed to be, but his missteps can still be jarring. Near the story’s end, Jed commits a nasty and badly explained act of violence that does nothing except squander sympathy and make you wonder what Houellebecq thought he was doing. Meanwhile, the novel’s big headline-grabbing move—the grisly murder of the writer Michel Houellebecq—is really only tenuously connected to the rest of its concerns. Police investigation into the killing takes up seventy pages, during which Jed Martin intermittently appears. It’s a fine, unobjectionable passage of writing in itself, but it doesn’t belong, and a real cop book would at least build some suspense.1

The best and most important thing that can be said about The Map and the Territory is that Houellebecq is still asking questions that those of us who care about literary reading and writing—and, to some extent, art in general—should feel obliged to think about. But it remains a curiously empty novel: a tissue of intriguing subjects that never quite coalesce into a vision. Psychological gaps may be appropriate in a book that takes the human inability to attach any solid meaning or motive to art as a theme, yet The Map and the Territory‘s silences seem thin rather than profound, as though Houellebecq cannot really escape the conviction that the urge to create is just one more stupid fact of life amongst the rest, signifying nothing. (“I want to give an account of the world . . . I want simply to give an account of the world,” insists Jed, though Houellebecq’s authorial voice adds that this is “a goal whose illusory nature he never sensed.”) Overall, Jed’s story does not do much to gainsay the feeling that Houellebecq is a writer who began his career with something he needed to express, expressed it tremendously well, and then began to flounder. Perhaps he has used up sex as a subject, and yet (thus far) nothing else seems to ignite his work in the same fashion. The Map and the Territory feels like a novel that doesn’t quite know what it wants to say.

But there is one last, remarkable passage. The epilogue, which recounts Jed Martin’s isolated, late existence in the Creuse countryside, is by far the most moving section of the book—a small jewel of tranquilized sadness. After his father’s death, Jed retreats from the world, wondering “what had led him to embark on an artistic representation of the world, or even to think that any such thing was possible.” But his life as artist is not over. He regains the “bizarre impulse,” and over his last thirty years he creates an archive of slow-exposure pictures and films, blending footage of vegetation, decaying industrial objects, models, and photographs of old friends and lovers into eerie, rippling videoworks that seem to depict “figurines, lost in the middle of an abstract and immense future city, a city which itself crumbles and falls apart then seems gradually to be scattered across the immense vegetation extending to infinity . . . They sink and seem for an instant to put up a struggle, before being suffocated by the superimposed layers of plants.” This testament to human impermanence is how The Map and the Territory ends, and it stays fixed in the mind, a premonition, in an odd way, of the very illusion it seems to dispel—that it is our works that will give us an afterlife; immortality from mortal hands.

1 Part of the problem too—though Houellebecq can hardly be blamed for this—is that Gavin Bowd’s translation sometimes flattens the prose unnecessarily (even the crudity suffers: Bowd has one character shouting “we fucked them up the arses! Up the arse!” where the original French is the more expressive, if that’s the right word, “Jusqu’à l’os!” (“To the bone!”)

Image: From www.chartandmapshop.com.au/product.php?id=26231.

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