by Peter Byrne
Houellebecq, Michel: La carte et le territoire, Paris, Flammarion, 2010, ISBN:978-2081246331, 428 pages. (Random House will publish a translation in September 2011, The Map and The Territory, ISBN: 9780434021406.)
C'est ainsi que Jed Martin prit congé d'une existence à laquelle il n'avait jamais totalement adhéré. ("That's how Jed Martin left a life he was never fully part of.")
—Michel Houellebecq, The Map and The Territory, page 426.
(Swans - August 1, 2011) While we await the English translation of Michel Houellebecq's latest novel, winner of the 2010 Prix Goncourt, a perusal of the original French can whet or dull our appetite. The author stays pretty close to the recipe he followed in his 1998 novel The Elementary Particles, (Atomised in the UK). The main character, Jed, is another version of the scientist Michel. Jed leads his life so far out on a cloud that he often seems like a mere symbol or a pretext for talking about other matters. These are primarily the changes in France during his lifetime, which stretches from the 1980s through most of the 21st century. For Houellebecq can't forgo more off-the-cuff futurology. It reads not so much as prophecy as one of those conversations between disgruntled drinkers that one can overhear in any neighborhood café-bar in France.
Jed's problem as the novel's lead character is that he lacks red blood corpuscles. Since he has opted out of intimacy with the human race from childhood, four-hundred-plus pages are really too many to devote to a case of pernicious anemia. Jed admits he's a misanthrope who has never been close to life. Furthermore, the fact that death and decline are highlighted from the outset puts a brake on any vital energy the novel might deliver.
Houellebecq solves Jed's mother-problem early. He has the poor woman commit suicide at forty when Jed is seven. That leaves the boy free for the rest of his life to fight off any other human attachment. He tells us his father is the only person in the world that he felt close to, and yet the two keep away from one another and at rare meals together have nothing to communicate. Readers meet Jed's father in the last stages of his decrepitude, just in time to get to know him before he opts for euthanasia.
Jed, like Michel in The Elementary Particles, is an avid frequenter of funerals and never misses the chance to describe a burial or a disinterment. J. P. Lovecraft, so admired by our author, casts his macabre shadow here. But, more important, Houellebecq is one of those mortals who early on was scandalized to learn that at some point each of us dies. He can't get over the unpleasant news.
One hopes the obsession with dissolution isn't keeping Houellebecq from having a full life. But there's no doubt that it makes for sapless novels. He regularly claims in interviews that he is really a poet. That may be true. An overriding preoccupation with death and decline can make for striking poems. It can't make a lively novel, which Stendhal called "a mirror carried along a main road," not a snapshot of the path to the cemetery.
Jed earns a very good living as an artist. Here the author does better than The Elementary Particles where we had to take it entirely on his say-so that the scientist Michel was the peer of Einstein. His view of the creative artist is more plausible. Of course we must disregard his philistine remarks about Picasso. Painters, moreover, wouldn't accept his literary conception of what they do. He sees it simply as representing some so-called "real." But nevertheless Jed's attitude is credible: Born comfortably middle class and surrounded by people eager to promote him, he can strike an art-for-art stance and doesn't have to bother himself or the reader with money matters.
But if we have no trouble accepting Jed as a brilliant artist, we wait in vain to learn about the rest of his personality. Olga, a Gallicized Russian, world-class beauty, and CEO with international clout, throws herself at Jed. We are aghast and reduced to coming up with the standby, "What on earth can she see in him?" For there is simply nothing there but the fussy doings of a bachelor in the mould of our old frigid friend Michel, the man of science in The Elementary Particles.
So what goes on in Jed's head as we turn all those pages? Endless reflections on the transformation of France. We begin with his fine old family house built in an airy Paris suburb that becomes a dangerous "banlieue" full of threatening immigrant gangs. The stink of "clochards" seeking shelter from the cold engulfs Jed's Paris studio. The rest of France has become a Disneyland for foreign tourists where the French can't afford to vacation. They busy themselves in the service industries, which amounts to resurrecting a phony "vieille France" for energy-rich Russians or visitors from a China that still produces real goods. The nation's future is in boutique hotels and farmers hiding their native orneriness and faking rural good-humor to woo visitors.
Jed mourns for the industrial past of his country while gleefully welcoming the trinkets change has brought. He's unsettled by the fact that one France is disappearing. But like Michel and Bruno in The Elementary Particles, he's in two minds. The new annoyances, often identified with foreigners or Frenchmen who let their standards slip, are not all bad. Houellebecq can't shed his ambiguity. He and Jed are enthralled by the new plethora of gadgets. He waxes romantic about consumer brands and stands wide-eyed before a Mercedes or even a Lexus. His unhappiness with the present is tempered by the boyish fun he manages to have all by himself. He's enamored of just those things that will proliferate in any free-enterprise tomorrow. He dreams of a hypermarket that will combine every supermarket chain and supply "all human needs."
So what happens when the novel has trouble breathing, when life leaves it as it has Jed? First the author injects a set piece or two, mostly quite irrelevant to the story line. Some of these come verbatim from the French Wikipedia and caused a plagiary alert in France. Houellebecq admitted his thefts but insisted with some high-flown talk of artistic creation that it didn't matter. A writer named Michel Lévy also accused Houellebecq of stealing the title of the novel from a book he had published. Houellebecq's description of a venal France seems borne out by these charges against him. Naturally the provocative mixture of the transgressive and the reactionary is good for sales.
When the novel begins to wheeze, the other life-support remedy is to go for broke and bring himself, Michel Houellebecq, (born Michel Thomas), into the novel as a character. This launches several new narrative strands, also quite irrelevant. The stunt by no means amounts to an artistic breakthrough. Amongst many others, Philip Roth has long practiced auto-fiction in America just as Martin Amis has in England. The novelty in Houellebecq's self-portraiture is that he has himself murdered in a particular gruesome fashion. The reader can imagine the author finally relaxing as he puts down his pen. In fantasy at least he can now stop worrying about dying. He's dead, and his own is the one funeral he won't be attending.
Houellebecq, the novelist, lumbers through baggy stories that regularly wander off subject. His prose is traditional and a tad impoverished. He doesn't give us full, rich, characters. He keeps us interested by his bad temper, which makes his attempts at social criticism so many pet peeves. His is a clown act, and amusing to the extent that he doesn't take himself too seriously. In this he's easier to bear than that other flashy French celebrity, Bernard-Henri Lévy. BHL pretends not to have the slightest inkling that his own act is only clowning.
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