290 pages, William Heinemann
Review by Marc Nash
Michel Houellebecq is the subversive satirist supreme. The diffident misanthrope who takes humanity to task for our natures, our systems, our ridiculous aspirations and our delusions. But he does so with light touch. He doesn't have to beat us around the head with our own foolish failings.
Jed Martin is an artist of some repute. The one layer he misses on his palette is an ability with words, so he seeks after commissioning one Michel Houellebecq to write the programme notes for his upcoming exhibition (and my how this novel blows Patrick Gayle's lame novel of that name out of the water). As part of the deal, Martin offers to paint a portrait of the author. Both men are non-social beings. The Houellebecq portrayed in the novel has few redeeming features and is always tagged with some aspect of his bibliography, brand Houellebecq.
So artist commissions writer, only the novel of course embodies an author writing about the fictional artist. In a few simple words, Houellebecq not only lances the pomposity of the art world, but conjures up marvellous canvases simply through his words: a painting entitled "Damian Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up The Art Market" and something similar with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Satire delivered by steely rapier wit rather than floppy palette brush. Without our literary words constructing a title, such paintings would carry no weight. Arriving at Shannon Airport, Martin passes a gallery of photographed visiting Popes and US Presidents, yet is only struck by an oil painting of the first celebrity visitor JFK and gives the portrait due study. This from an artist who initially made his name through photographic art works.
Houellebecq is either satirising or protesting the death of the old, traditional France within this novel (it's hard to prise his intent, seeing as he himself resides in exile in Ireland, having spurned France, or surrendered to being spurned by his native country, though this novel won the Prix Goncourt). Martin's photos were of Michelin maps of the French rural heartlands. Not the scenery, not the landscapes, nor the people living there, just the topographic maps, an ironic juxtaposition. The map evidently is the territory after all. Added to that a meditation on Michelin's guides having necessarily to change and adapt, from appealing to the French (who can no longer afford to holiday in their own country) and the Anglo-Saxons (who tour further afield) and now have to resonate with the tastes of Chinese and Russian tourists. The restaurants experiment with exotic fusion menus, only to discover the Chinese hanker for locally sourced pork sausages and France must contemplate returning to its bucolic traditions and away from multi-cultural influences. Just as the artistic Academies would look askance at the dominance of conceptual art of the likes of Koons and Hirst, so French cookery is under assault; lunch now being a rushed workplace half-hour, without the savouring of wine and fine gustation. Other Academie Francaise cultural touchstones are under threat from foreigners and globalisation in this novel. Not least the imposition of a smoking ban in line with the EU stipulation.
Martin further chronicles this slow decay as he switches from photography to oil painting. His painting series is about the dignity of white collar labour. Such labour itself fast being stripped of any useful productive value. The irony strikes him that the captains of industry he paints are those most rich and best capable of paying the large sums for his paintings. Martin is an artist with a good eye, but no ostensible love of what he does. He is unfazed during unproductive periods. He remains untroubled by doctrinal issues in art, or moral issues. He is even fairly detached from the money his job has rolling in. He is critiquing capitalism, which is why the fictional and real Houellebecq empathise with his work, yet he is happiest walking around the familiar aisles in a chain supermarket.
In part 3 of the novel a terrible crime takes place and here Houellebecq offers up a pretty stylish police procedural genre part work. Some may feel the energy built up in the novel percolates away at this point, but I didn't see it as a problem. I rather enjoyed his take on a tired old genre, very French it was too, since it puts one in mind of all those French detective movies that they no longer seem to make (another Academie loss in the face of globalisation of culture?). The author seems rather taken with the real-life police advisers who helped him, so much so they are awarded a very rare Houellebecq accolade of an acknowledgement, alongside his flippant doff of the cap to Wikipedia. He has confessed to lifting sections from Wikipedia and transplanting them into the novel, but then Burroughs did something similar with his cut-ups of the works of other authors. The subversion is still nestling within this third section, a brilliant little meditative riff on dogs and pets, turns into a heart-rendering cameo about the lack of posterity and childlessness.
Houellebecq has somewhat of a curious style. There are points at which he freezes the action to riff or spout off about something in modern life that clearly grinds his gears. But he does faithfully embed it in the voice of his characters, so that he doesn't come across as ranting. In fact I'd venture that he actually wears his cynicism with rather good grace, as if he can't quite buy into his critique of modern society himself. Then the action is likely to veer straight back into either a profound welter of emotion through the interaction between characters, or its polar opposite, the drab, weary observations made by a totally isolated character out of kilter with everything and everyone in the world. Sometimes the switch between these three states and tones is a bit perplexing, but for me it does all hold together, underscored by a real wit and charm, however begrudging that charm is to both the characters and the reader. Could Houellebecq be cooking a snook at his readers? Quite possibly, but we accede graciously to his art.
I'll leave you with some wonderfully misanthropic quotes: "since it was generally considered less noble in the profession to photograph Pamela Anderson's breasts than the scattered remains of a Lebanese suicide bomber". And on a painful dinner for Martin with his father, "There were chocolate profiteroles in the fridge. Did he have to take them out? Or did he have to learn more about his mother's suicide?" That the misanthropy is ineluctably French rather than Anglo-Saxon, is evident in a sentence such as "he looked like a Belgian situationist, or a proletarian intellectual".
If you want something to sum up Houellebecq, then it's the early phrase "scarcely insufficient", very much a glass half-empty view of the world, where others might have posited "easily sufficient". I give you Michel Houellebecq, possibly literature's greatest living misanthrope.
The Map and the Territory.
The Map and the Territory.