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Sunday, February 12, 2012

"The Map and the Territory" by Michel Houellebecq (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)


Michel Houellebecq at Wikipedia
Order The Map and the Territory HERE

INTRODUCTION:Michel Houellebecq is one of the most acclaimed and controversial French writers of today. With four major novels to date, all controversial in a way or another - though he has written other novels and novelettes, non-fiction including a book about HP Lovecraft, performed psychedelic rap and directed movies - and three Goncourt prize shortlists in 1998 for The Elementary Particles/Atomised, 2005 for The Possibility of an Island and 2010 (won) for The Map and the Territory he is hated, adulated and anything in-between...

While I read his sfnal The Elementary Particles some years back - I liked it but thought that as sf it was not that original - and his very controversial Platform (no comment as such are easily misinterpreted today by the thought control police, just read the book and make your own mind about it) pretty much on English language publication in 2002, I sort of forgot about his work until recently.

I got, read and was very impressed by The Possibility of an Island - very sfnal/review upcoming in a few weeks - but The Map and the Territory was a novel that hit it out the park for me so to speak and I will try to explain why next.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Map and the Territory starts with an epigraph that reflects the attitude of the author's alter ego in the book - named also Michel Houellebecq and described as the reclusive author of the novels above, rather than the outlook of the relatively energetic hero of the novel, painter and photographer Jed Martin.

"The world is weary of me,
And I am weary of it."

While the above epigraph could well reflect the philosophy of his earlier novels, especially of The Possibility of an Island, where the world ultimately becomes tired of humanity so to speak, The Map and the Territory is the tamest Houellebecq novel to date as content goes and the most ironical one, not least because of his self-portrait in the book. It is also "very French" and in turns both a love letter to France and an (occasionally scathing) critique.

The first part of the novel taking place in the early 2000's and in which we meet our hero Jed Martin, we find out a little about his past and in which he launches himself in the art world with photographs inspired by the Michelin maps of France, while both the title of the novel and the author's view of France as the ultimate tourist destination for whichever nationalities are on top, like the Englishmen and Americans of the 20th century or the Chinese and Indians of the 21st, are presented, is quite interesting but the true power of the novel resides in the middle part that takes place in the 2010's.

Through Jed Martin's paintings and the whole discussion and reaction to them, the author offers a sfnal like assessment of today's society; I disagree with quite a lot of what the author says here, but his perspective is coherent and I would say Balzacian though of course with 21st century realities and sensibilities.

"Two convinced supporters of the market economy; two resolute supporters also of the Democratic Party, and yet two opposing facets of capitalism, as different as a banker in Balzac could be from Verne’s engineer. The Conversation at Palo Alto, Houellebecq stressed in his conclusion, was far too modest a subtitle; instead, Jed Martin could have entitled his painting A Brief History of Capitalism, for that, indeed, is what it was."

The structure of these first two parts of the novel as a sort of biography/historical fiction told from the future about a 21st century artist is also very sfnal, while of course the epilogue carries the story to the 2040's and offers a glimpse of the future geopolitics in addition to continuing Jed Martin's saga.

"Even if today it is considered a historical curiosity, Houellebecq’s text—the first of this size devoted to Martin’s work—nonetheless contains some interesting intuitions. Beyond the variation of themes and techniques, he asserts for the first time the unity of the artist’s work, and discovers a deep logic in the fact that having devoted his formative years to hunting for the essence of the world’s manufactured products, he is interested, during the second half of his life, in their producers."

The third part of the book is contemporary and structured as a police investigation with all new characters, while Jed appears in a consulting role and despite the major change in focus and pace, this part works superbly because of its topic which I won't spoil though you will easily find out about if you read the blurb for example.

The Map and the Territory has lots of great tidbits, scenes and vignettes and the author uses Wikipedia for a lot of information - leading to nonsensical accusations of plagiarism as the use of public information in novels is a traditional one.

“What defines a man? What’s the question you first ask a man, when you want to find out about him? In some societies, you ask him first if he’s married, if he has children; in our society, we ask first what his profession is. It’s his place in the productive process, and not his status as reproducer, that above all defines Western man.”

Michel Houellebecq's usual themes - aging and death, sexuality and its loss with age, the conflict between generations - appear in droves but here they are more nuanced than in the stark The Possibility of an Island and balanced by a rounded "big picture" analysis of cultural/societal values.

The one niggle that stopped me from ranking The Map and the Territory as my #1 novel of the year to date was the ending from the epilogue which I found a bit dissonant with the rest; a little more ambiguity there would have made the novel even stronger imho.

Overall The Map and the Territory is a great novel well deserving of its Goncourt prize and a top 25 of mine in 2012. While not strictly speaking sfnal despite its taking place in the 1990-2040 period, I strongly recommend it for any sf lover as its big picture themes are very similar (and much better done imho) with the ones in near future sf.

2 comments:

Seth said...

Houellebecq's France

Liviu said...

Excellent link; lots of discussion on Houellebecq so he seems to touch a nerve; he writes well I guess so he commands attention.

See here for another recent discussion:

http://www.bookforum.com/review/9025

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