Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory

Michel Houellebecq is a great contemporary novelist. Funny, bold, snotty, arrogant, and most of all good, he is a Frenchman who has no American equivalent because he is risk-inclined, the opposite of most all practicing American novelists, who are risk-averse. Houellebecq has five novels published in the English language, four of which I enjoyed. That’s a good average; his sixth novel Submission arrives in the fall.

Whatever is a funny novel about the repetitive boredom of young adulthood and employment. The Elementary Particles is one of the best novels about the 1960s and its effects on children of that era. Platform is a hilarious send-up of travel and sex, easily the funniest and scariest Houellebecq novel. The Possibility of an Island is the one Houllebecq I didn’t enjoy–it was too cute in its structure and toward the book’s middle I became bored, something that never happened to me when reading Houellebecq.

I had small expectations for The Map and the Territory (2010) and was surprised how much I enjoyed its main character Jed Martin, an artist who benefits more from timing and luck than outright talent. Houllebecq is very good on art and the artist’s motivation; there are insights within insights, and nothing of the lofty bullshit one often associates with the creative process. The Map and the Territory is a parody of many things, but namely it is a story of art and art’s meaning in the world.  Houllebecq makes a lengthy appearance in his own novel, and the highlight for me was the relationship between Jed and his businessman father. The prose of the novel is Houellebecq’s best, lively and given to unpredictability. Didn’t care for the novel’s third act–a Maigret-pastiche whodunit–but the first two are enough.