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the complete review - fiction
The Map and the Territory
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- French title: La carte et le territoire
- Translated by Gavin Bowd
- Awarded the prix Goncourt, 2010
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B+ : somewhat adrift -- like his characters -- but packs quite a bit in
See our review for fuller assessment.
Pretty good -- and a more laid-back Houellebecq
From the Reviews:
- "(A) novel that is, like much of Houellebecq's oeuvre, equal parts engrossing and infuriating. At times, it reads like the work of a writer too willing to burn his talent, one who writes for long stretches with his senses purposefully dimmed to test his readers' patience. Fortunately, he regains consciousness long enough to place this often-explosive narrative back on the rails." - Kevin Rabalais, The Age
- "Plot is not exactly an imperative element in TMATT. Nor are characters (.....) Genre is treated pretty haphazardly, too -- following the murder, what had been a mild satire of the art world transforms itself into a somewhat enervated policier. (At least I think the art world’s being satirized, since Houellebecq puts quotation marks around phrases like "working breakfast" and mocks the prices of gallery art.) None of this matters because this is a Novel of Ideas, and, as the title indicates, the driving idea is the problem of representation itself. (...) In addition to the all the fun-house self-reflexivity, Houellebecq’s other strategy is to reproduce so much ostentatiously useless detail that the book itself threatens to become one of those unconscionable social maps Borges warned about." - Laura Kipnis, Bookforum
- "Bref, Houellebecq est toujours là. Moins dans la provocation, plus dans le rôle où il excelle : celui de sociologue en chef de la société contemporaine. Son hypersensibilité capte les bruissements du monde, ses métamorphoses et ses vanités." - Emmanuel Hecht, L'Express
- "Never much of a wordsmith, Houellebecq (the real one) here at least gives it a try. (...) Admirably, The Map and the Territory also skewers the art world’s pretentious jargon and galloping mercantilism. (...) It reveals Houellebecq’s worst quality to be not contempt for humanity but simply a taste for attracting attention, a trick every neglected boy learns early on." - Donald Morrison, Financial Times
- "Aber wer von hier aus Houellebecqs Roman als simple Gesellschaftsfarce rezipiert, verfehlt ihn komplett. Denn der Autor, nach wie vor ein stupender Diagnostiker unserer westlichen Welt, verzichtet hier auf die gewohnte Provokation um jeden Preis. An ihre Stelle ist ein Erzählstil getreten, der klar, schnörkellos und bisweilen sogar zärtlich ist. In der Wahl seiner Mittel zeigt er sich souverän, und ganz offensichtlich kümmert er sich nicht weiter um postmodernen Firlefanz - wo derlei anklingt wie in der Vorführung des Autors im Spiegelstadium, ist das erzählerisch untermauert und frei von jedem Hauch einer Kopfgeburt. Vor allem aber tritt neben die sprachliche Souveränität die Kühnheit der Konstruktion. Der Autor bringt mit leichter Hand zusammen, was nicht zusammengehört, poetologisch wie inhaltlich." - Sandra Kegel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "The Map and the Territory is a meditation on the relationship between art and the world it seeks to depict, but it is much more besides. Peppered with references to, and appearances by, figures from French cultural life (...) it anatomises France's preoccupation with its past and its traditions (.....) It is also a more reflective, less ragged novel than some of its predecessors" - Alex Clark, The Guardian
- "One of the most important facts about Michel Houellebecq -- usually overlooked in favour of his nihilism, alleged racism and other attention-seeking provocations -- is that he is a first-rate prose stylist. This is not quite enough, however, to make him a good novelist. (...) The Map and the Territory is part mystery thriller and part satire, set in the near-future. It presents a vision of contemporary French society as a cross between a reality show and Third World dystopia. (...) (T)he plot is ludicrous, teasing and entertaining in roughly equal measure." - Andrew Hussey, Literary Review
- "Derrière son masque, M. Tout-le-Monde est un "alien", et Michel Houellebecq un écrivain puissant, quoi qu'on en dise : loin des mille livres bien polis qui, chaque année, ne font finalement ni chaud ni froid, les siens dérangent, révulsent ou ébranlent -- ils agissent. Et s'ils provoquent, chaque fois, une réaction chimique sur l'esprit du lecteur, c'est parce que leurs questions sont, au fond, toujours les nôtres -- même et surtout quand elles soulèvent le coeur. Houellebecq n'est pas humaniste ? Il est humain. Et bien vivant." - Raphaëlle Rérolle, Le Monde
- "Das oft verschmockt daherkommende Gerede, die klischierten Bemerkungen über Malerei und Technikeinsatz, das alles mag noch dem jeweiligen Niveau seiner Protagonisten geschuldet sein, ist aber stellenweise zu lang geraten. Wir haben ja längst verstanden. Dagegen darf man auf die bald karikaturistische Selbstdarstellung der Figuren natürlich zählen. Ein nicht zu vernachlässigender Nebenaspekt des Romans ist gerade die Zurschaustellung der in einer gewissen (Pariser) Szene vorherrschenden Erregungsparameter. Da kann Houellebecq subtil punkten. In der Regel ist sein Blick dezent ironisch, und so verzeiht man die bald manierierte Tendenz zum name dropping in Bezug auf Marken, Produkte und echte oder vermeintliche Ikonen der Szenerie." - Thomas Laux, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "The novel affects the reader like a glamorous advertisement for work: it might make one want to work, but obscurely, and not at the real-life tasks that one is supposed to be doing." - Elaine Blair, The New York Review of Books
- "Michel Houellebecq’s new novel is a weird air plant of a book: it feeds off atmosphere, rather than soil. (...) This is Houellebecq’s hommage à la globalisation. It’s also his coming of age." - Judith Shulevitz, The New York Times Book Review
- "The book is a bundle of reflections tied together by a story, but the reflections are entertaining as well as elegiac and the story carries you along. (...) A passing insistence on detail -- every meal is described, and even the trials of travelling Ryanair get a mention -- helps chain a sometimes scatty book to earth." - George Walden, The Observer
- "The story develops into a halfhearted murder mystery, but the real meat of the book isn't in the plot. It's in this gifted author's point of view, which while convincing is rarely uplifting. Life in Houellebecq's world can be bleak. His prose is anything but. Spending time in both can be a difficult pleasure, and when you step away, you realize, with gratitude, that there are other ways of seeing things." - Thomas Chatterton William, San Francisco Chronicle
- "It is a work of retreat, into solitude, the countryside, France itself. Houellebecq’s harsh view of the conditions of life has not softened, but here is conveyed with calm and distance. This book, so beautifully written, so inspiriting for all its pessimism, is the new novel I have loved best this year. We have not his equal." - David Sexton, The Spectator
- "The prose is a pleasure to read (apart from the over-liberal use of italics) and there are some good jokes, but the book feels underpowered and Olga is no more than a cipher. As the author moves us forward to the year 2035, we sense that not much has happened in Jed’s life in the intervening years." - Adrian Tahourdin, Times Literary Supplement
- "In this novel Mr. Houellebecq has dramatized his beliefs more effectively than ever before -- it's certainly his best book. (...) Yet the novel is also stunted by Mr. Houellebecq's bleak dogmatism. With his insistence on mirroring entropic decay, the story becomes sterile and anticlimactic." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal
- "Seine alte Schärfe mag Michel Houellebecq inzwischen verloren haben, aber nicht seinen sentimentalen Lustekel an der Welt." - Iris Radisch, Die Zeit
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The Map and the Territory does have a cartographic feel to it, not only in the practically psychogeographic obsessions familiar from most of Houellebecq's work -- as in his other novels, place(s) and travel feature prominently here -- but in its attempt at a mapping of specifically the intersection between art and commerce.
The central figure in the novel is the artist Jed Martin, who over the course of his life goes through three creative phases, interrupted by long, seemingly fallow periods.
His father is a frustrated architect who once had grand and radical creative ambitions, but had to put them aside; he became very successful, but at the beginning of the novel is already in terminal decline, with little to look forward to (and much -- like that artificial anus they want to fit him with -- he doesn't look forward to).
Finally, there's Michel Houellebecq -- yes, one and the same, at least as far as his books, success, acquaintances, and general history go -- living in isolation -- and mired in his own waste, physically and spiritually ("I spend most of my days in bed; I most often eat in bed, watching cartoons on Fox TV").
They are a barren lot, not well integrated into any social circles, each practically living as an (and on a fortified) island: Jed's father's house has become an isolated fortress in the wrong part of town -- and years later Jed will create his own fenced-in retreat, almost completely seperated from the surrounding world (and from which he eventually emerges, Rip Van Winkle-like, to find a changed world).
And Houellebecq goes so far as to acknowledge: "It's the only thing I really have, in my life: walls".
Houellebecq lives first in Ireland, barely ever getting a visitor, and then buys his old family home and moves back there in an attempt to go back home again -- but has nothing of family there (and his social contacts are so limited that when he gets himself killed it takes ages for anyone to discover the body).
Each had a woman in their life, but lost or abandoned her -- Jed's mom was a suicide, Jed was briefly intensely involved with Olga, who helped launch his career, but when she was reassigned to Moscow he gave her up without a fight, and Houellebecq is twice divorced, "with a child he never saw" -- indeed: "For more than ten years, he had no contact with anyone in his family".
There are practically no children here, and procreation is presented as being on its last legs: not only did Jed's difficult birth render his mother unable to have any more children, Houellebecq eventually even throws in an infertile couple whose dog is infertile too.
The novel chronicles Jed's life and career, the first high-point being his exhibit, 'The Map Is More Interesting Than The Territory', photographic enlargements of Michelin maps.
Olga -- who works for Michelin -- helps arrange this first success (which includes helping to introduce him to all the right people), and he makes enough money off these pictures that when he decides to stop he can live comfortably without much worry for quite a while.
The bulk of the novel focuses on Jed's second creative stage, when he has turned to painting.
He creates forty-two paintings in the 'Series of Simple Professions' (e.g. Maya Dubois, Remote Maintenance Assistant) and twenty-two more in the 'Series of Business Compositions' (such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology), and it is for an exhibit of these that he tries (successfully) to get Houellebecq to write a piece for the catalogue.
Eventually, Jed also paints Michel Houellebecq, Writer -- his last painting -- and promises it to the writer; by the time he gives it to Houellebecq it is an incredibly valuable piece of art -- and the portrait also proves to be Houellebecq's undoing (significant, given that The Map and the Territory is itself a '(self-)portrait of the artist').
Jed's career, and his relationships with his father -- trying to fulfill filial obligations, but largely just going through some motions with a man who, in his decline, continues to go his own way and with whom he feels little connection -- and Houellebecq, a man Jed barely knows but whom he clearly considers a friend of sorts ("you've become important for me" he tells the writer), allow Houellebecq(-the-author) to muse and reflect on his usual obsessions.
On the whole, the observations are much tamer than the rants from previous novels.
There are the gratuitous xenophobic swipes -- Olga commissions a survey of what food is consumed at Michelin-guide hotels and finds: "Creative cuisine, as well as Asian, was unanimously rejected. North African cooking was only appreciated in the far south and on Corsica", and what really sells is "traditional" (i.e. good ol' French) fare -- and the obligatory depiction of civilization-going-to-hell (by the end, decades in the future, "France had once again become a favorite destination for sex tourism").
There's a lot of name-dropping -- of both personal names (not only a party attended by French movers and shakers, but Carlos Slim (the world's richest man), showing up at Jed's vernissage) and product names.
(Houellebecq's fascination with products has him go so far as to devote a scene to his fictional alter ego rhapsodizing (in a voice: "soft and deep, filled with naive emotion") about the three perfect products he's come across in his: "life as a consumer" -- "It's not much but it's something, especially when you've [sic] quite a poor private life".
Typically, too, the fictional Houellebecq is a great fan of the well-written owner's manual.)
The Map and the Territory is a novel of status -- of products, art, and people.
It is a name-dropping novel, and the French figures that appear here are well-known and considered powerful and important; one of the few figures who appears as a friend of Houellebecq's (though in fact there is practically no real interaction between them), Windows on the World-author Frédéric Beigbeder, is puffed up to be: "a sort of Sartre of the 2010s" (and though that could be construed as a very clever Houellebecqian commentary on how very far the world has gone downhill in recent decades, alas, this he means seriously).
Similarly, it is a brand-name-dropping novel, and again the brands are of the sort considered the finest.
(Oddly, Houellebecq doesn't even try to crack the often very thin veneer of reputation covering (lack of) substance, with either the personalities or products.)
Status also -- or primarily -- has to do with money: early on Jed is situated according to his "ArtPrice ranking of the richest artists" -- "he had reached 593 ten years ago -- but 17 in France", -- and his painting-show's success is defined less by the critical reactions than the prices the pieces achieve.
Even when the novel turns to detective work, remuneration is addressed, an essential, defining aspect of their work and worth: police detectives, readers are told, earn somewhere around: "2,898 euros a month" at the start of their careers.
(It is noteworthy, however, that financial success proves unsatisfying to Jed's father, while both the fictional Houellebecq and Jed don't strut their success but rather use it to withdraw from society and live simply in the comfort (or, in Houellebecq's case, the mess) they would like.)
Houellebecq conceives of three interesting forms of artistic expression for Jed, all part of a lifelong project: "to give an objective description of the world -- a goal whose illusory nature he rarely sensed".
It is in describing these -- and the long inactive periods in between -- that Houellebecq is at his best.
The career (and especially its phenomenal success) sound rather unlikely, but it allows him to present an interesting picture of art and commerce and the intersection of the two.
The first encounter Jed has with his future gallerist also gets at some of how Houellebecq sees the art (and, indeed, the whole commercial) world, as the gallerist explains:
It's not a particular art form, or manner, that interests me, it's a personality, a view of the artistic gesture, of its situation in society.
The same goes for Houellebecq, of course -- and fortunately he is quite good in his presentation of these, and especially personality (if often also too lazy to be able to situate it better in any sort of community: Houellebecq's characters thrive only in almost complete isolation).
Oh, yes, The Map and the Territory is also a murder mystery of sorts -- Houellebecq gets himself (well, his character) killed (and, in a typically Houellebecqian gesture, this is naturally done with the help of a very exclusive machine).
Here, quite far in, the novel switches from its focus on Jed to the police investigation, which sputters on for a while before being solved completely by accident; yes, Houellebecq is far too lazy an author to ever seriously try his hand at crime fiction (predictably, too, the one crime author that's recommended here is atmospheric Mygale-author Thierry Jonquet).
It's a somewhat odd (and hardly necessary) gesture -- though the fact that the character expressed some satisfaction with his situation before he is killed is suggestive (i.e. implies Houellebecq doesn't think he deserves to be happy).
Yes, The Map and the Territory is, in part self-portrait -- presenting this: "man of rational if narrow mind" (and his slovenly living habits) -- but he seems almost a character of convenience rather than, say, get-this-off-his-chest necessity; it's this almost sly and casual presentation -- Houellebecq is neither particularly defensive nor self-flagellating -- that makes the figure quite appealing, too.
The Map and the Territory feels rather tame by Houellebecq's previous standards, and while all his books meander the lack of over-the-top rants makes for an oddly mellow read.
Unfortunately, there's still some sloppiness of argument and presentation; Houellebecq's canvas is pretty much as messy as usual, just not as loud.
It is an entertaining, meandering read -- though more thought-nudging than provoking.
It is fine (though, yes, the use of italicization for emphasis seems excessive), but rather lacking in spark.
- M.A.Orthofer, 22 December 2011
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The Map and the Territory:
Other books by Michel Houellebecq under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
French author Michel Houellebecq was born in 1958.
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© 2011-2012 the complete review
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