‘Step up! Step up! all those who think they are good enough’ – The Map & The Territory by Michel Houellebecq

There is nothing more annoying than someone exclaiming passages from the book they are reading. ‘Listen to this,’ they say… ‘Oh, that reminds me of a line…’ ‘Yes, well, so-and-so would argue…’ And I found myself doing just this over the weekend while reading Michel Houellebecq’s new novel. Conversations on the state of the Eurozone, contemporary art, the sex industry, euthanasia, all had me reaching for my notes to read out sentences I had scribbled down. How does Houellebecq do it? He nearly always manages to have something relevant to say about the times we live in, about the near future, about the end of humankind. Let’s throw some German words at him and see if they stick: Weltanschauung – tick; Umwelt – tick; Weltschmerz – tick; Schadenfreude – tick; Welträtsel – tick; Vergangenheitsbewältigung (pardon me) – tick; Zeitgeist – tock. In his new novel, Houellebecq delivers a state-of-the-world fiction based on autobiography and hoax biography (think William Boyd’s Nat Tate) that outdoes anything written in the last decade – and that includes works by Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Haruki Murakami, and Philip Roth. Of contemporary writers, only Tom McCarthy, Daniel Woodrell, and an on-form Bret Easton Ellis could come close. Discuss.

When a novel has you laughing during a funeral scene, you know you are in the company of a master. All Houellbecqian elements are here – fathers, mothers, sex tourism, environmental issues, depression, loneliness, the literary and art worlds, jealousies, rivalry, and they are all thrown together in a pot-au-feu of sarcasm, satire, reflection, and projection.  Reading it, I could not help imagine the novel as one written by Carl Hiaasen and edited by Alexander Pope. Funny, violent, sad, and liberating, it fired my synapses to the point where I was worried my brains were going to end up as a human form of cervelle de veau.

So, what’s it abahhhhhhhht, like? Well, it has an odd symmetry, starting as a straightforward Künstlerroman (Houellebecq’s favourite novel is Thomas Mann’s Bildungsroman The Magic Mountain), relating the life of artist Jed Martin and his rise to millionaire status and rival of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. Jed begins his career by photographing ‘objects of human manufacturing’ – things, their ontic existence, the difference between Vorhandenheit and Zuhandenheit. In a comical interlude (typically for Houellebecq, following an extremely gruesome crime), a police officer visits the scene and drives along rue Martin-Heidegger and circumnavigates the Immanuel Kant roundabout: ‘a purely urbanistic creation of great aesthetic sobriety – a simple circle of totally grey tarmac which led to nothing’ – brilliant.

Jed finds success when he photographs Michelin roadmaps, making them – in a Borgesian way – the map that becomes the territory. After paintings entitled ‘Series of Simple Professions,’ he moves on to portraits with titles such as ‘Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology,’ and ‘The Architect Jean-Pierre Martin Leaving the Management of his Business’ – not very subtle but very effective satires on Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ and on the works of Warhol, Koons, and Hirst. After becoming extraordinarily rich, Jed retires to his grandparents’ old home and, after a long hiatus, begins to create films merging nature with computer circuit boards in a Ballardian apocalypse of futurity and vegetation. Benjamin wrote, ‘Magician and surgeon compare to painter and cameraman. The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web. There is a tremendous difference between the pictures they obtain. That of the painter is a total one, that of the cameraman consists of multiple fragments which are assembled under a new law. Thus, for contemporary man the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment. And that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art.’ And it is that aspect of our humanity – the dedication to art and the abandonment of human contact – that Houellebecq questions so thoroughly. What is love? What is friendship? What use are families? Why is death so alluring? At what stage are we no longer human?

Using another Borgesian trick, Houellebecq introduces himself into the novel. Jed Martin would like the author to write an introduction to a catalogue of his works. While visiting the author in Ireland – we get a glimpse of Houellebecq’s lonely life, either a truthful one or a view that satirizes the myths surrounding him – and takes photographs in order to paint a portrait later entitled ‘Michel Houellebecq, Writer,’ eventually sold to a Hindu mobile phone operator for 12 million euros: Zeitgeist –tock. When Houellebecq moves to his childhood family home, the novel becomes a crime novel (I won’t spoil it by saying why), and the section preceding the epilogue reads like a clever and funny (in a good way) pastiche of a Scandinavian crime novel. In fact, I think he might have stolen the idea of a police officer with a perfect photographic visual memory from Jo Nesbø’s Beate Lønn and her amazing fusiform gyrus.

Any Cop?: To conclude, I loved it. I love the cover as well – the simulated bubble wrap is inspired. If you want meditations on death, dogs, Picasso, William Morris, and the future of humanity then this is a novel to get you thinking. Dry humour undercuts the depression, intelligence invigorates the somewhat maudlin issues, and the ideas make you forget (They do! They do!) the typos and slack copyediting. Houellebecq yet again throws down a marker – Step up! Step up! all those who think they are good enough.

Steve Finbow

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