THE MAP AND THE TERRITORY by Michel Houellebecq: Book Review [The Ryan Dixon Line]
Why couldn’t I have read that book?
Considering that one of his previous novels focused on a travel agency that sold prostitution packages to Thailand and that several others contain enough sex and violence to make the Marquis de Sade blush, I had a large bottle of hand sanitizer at the ready when reading Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, THE MAP AND THE TERRITORY. Sadly, what I really needed by the end was a six pack of Red Bull.
At least from the view of these shores, the wave of controversy that surrounded THE MAP AND THE TERRITORY, which won the Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary award, is rather perplexing. The novel follows artist Jed Martin as he reveals a new series of paintings after a ten year hiatus. In order to get as much press attention as possible for his gallery opening, he commissions a certain Michel Houellebecq to write the essays for the catalog. The show’s a hit, there’s a gruesome murder and that’s about it.
As a satire on art and society the novel reads like Bret Easton Ellis on Prozac. And even though Houellebecq follows in the footsteps of Martin Amis by casting himself as a major supporting character, the novel is devoid of any other post-modern narrative game playing, aside from a brief detour into Grand Guignol thriller territory that is swiftly brushed aside without a satisfying pay-off. To be fair, Houellebecq isn’t interested in narrative pay-off, or storytelling at all really, as he made abundantly clear in a 2010 Paris Review interview with Susannah Hunnewel:
“You might get the impression that I have a mild contempt for storytelling, which is only somewhat true…At first, I don’t obey, I don’t plot, but then from time to time, I say to myself, Come on, there’s got to be a story. I control myself. But I will never give up a beautiful fragment merely because it doesn’t fit in the story.”
And Houellebecq’s novel really is nothing more than a series of fragments (some a lot less beautiful than others) on art, aging, assisted suicides, urban living, etymology, decapitation, etc., etc. Yet, this all-you-can-eat buffet of ideas would have perhaps been edible if The Map and the Territory were truly a novel of ideas. But to even his most ardent supporters, the essayistic elements are the least interesting aspect of Houellebecq’s work. For example, after calling Map “excellent,” Slate writer Vincent Glad complained (in the same sentence, no less) that Houellebecq’s digressions were “tedious.”
Ironically or not, Houellebecq seems to relish playing the role of polymath. But the joke’s on him. The hoarding and distribution of knowledge has almost no currency in our all-access, On Demand culture. What’s important is the delivery, the take, the angle. Unless you’re trying to compete on Jeopardy, knowing something just isn’t enough anymore.
Any grudging admiration for Houellebecq’s exhausting digressions is finally ground into dust upon learning that last year SlateFr discovered that many of them were taken, sometimes verbatim, from Wikipedia. Houellebecq didn’t abjectly apologize at this J’accuse, however. Instead, he argued that this re-use wasn’t copying at all, but just part of his style, a “patchwork, weavings, interlacings,” and that other writers (like Georges Perec) incorporated encyclopedic facts in far more blatant and plagiaristic ways. (I have to admit I find this defiant stance a breath of fresh air in comparison to authors like James Frey who, in order to win back the media’s good graces, eagerly lie prostrate in front of bloated cultural king makers like her divine O’ness.)
The question as to whether or not lifting Wikipedia content is a legitimate (or even legal) artistic choice is one for another day, however. All we can be sure of is that Houellebecq’s use of it results in a tedious reading experience. Despite the accompanying hype, controversy and acclaim, at least to this American’s eyes, The Map and the Territory is written in an unintelligible foreign language.