Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Well, reading my first Michel Houellebecq novel was not exactly what I expected. I imagined I would have to put up with some gritty and depressing sex scenes (there were none) and I thought I would be impressed nevertheless with his writing (yes, and no). As I mentioned before, I came to his latest novel, which won the 2010 Prix Goncourt, with the preconceived notion that he was a good writer, but probably not to my taste.

This is all just to say that hype is ridiculous, and try as I may to avoid it, there is always some amount of hype that filters its way into my reading brain, thus coloring my reading experience. So okay. Despite all that, what did I think?

La Carte et le Territoire (Eng: The Map and the Territory, which will probably come out later this year) is a strange novel – on one hand it’s extremely clever, on the other I couldn’t help finding it a little dull.

I want to say quickly why I found some of the book dull. First, I think I was simply expecting Houellebecq’s writing to be more intense or more daring. The book is well-written. But the prose is straightforward. Not very lyrical or descriptive. Most of the descriptive work is spent on labeling things. Objects are given their brand names, for example, and people are presented as static images, much like a photograph. The animation of each person comes through the 3rd person omniscient narrator who dips into the thoughts of the characters—fluidly, but again, almost always through exposition.

There is definitely a cynicism in Houellebecq’s writing, a cynicism toward human beings. I was expecting this aspect of his work, and I even agree with some of his vision, and yet there were moments that startled me. Moments in which Houellebecq expounds on some thought or notion of one of the characters and I just found myself thinking—how sad, how untrue.

Despite all that, I think what I’m really resisting about this book is its purposeful unwillingness to engage me in a seamless story. Time and time again, the novel does something to remind me of its fictional status. Where I got frustrated with this is that La Carte et le Territoire doesn’t necessarily do anything unusual with that pointed revelation. It just becomes a clever twist layered on top of a conventionally-told conventional story.

Briefly – the story:

Jed Martin is an artist. The novel recounts his entire life, with particular emphasis on his 30s and 40s, his relationship with a Russian woman named Olga, his friendship with the writer Michel Houellebecq and his feelings about his father.

Martin and Houellebecq meet because Houellebecq gets asked to write the catalog for Martin’s biggest exhibit. The men develop a strange friendship, which is cut short when Houellebecq is savagely murdered.

There are several layers of admirable cleverness to the metafictional trick of Houellebecq putting a writer named Michel Houellebecq into the novel:

First, Michel Houellebecq appears as a character for the first time when Jed and his father are having their annual Christmas dinner together. Jed mentions the fact that a write named Houellebecq was asked to write the catalog. The father says, “Michel Houellebecq?” and Jed says, “Do you know him?” The father answers:

“He’s a good writer, I think. An enjoyable read, and he has a pretty accurate vision of society.”

This is funny, obviously – Houellebecq having a character tell the reader that Houellebecq knows what he’s talking about when he portrays the world.  

Second, the catalog. In the novel, Houellebecq writes the catalog of Jed Martin’s art exhibit and this catalog takes the form of an overview of Martin’s artistic development and vision. But of course, the novel is exactly the same thing. Houellebecq writing about the life and art of Jed Martin.

Third, on page 151-153 of my edition, Jed Martin falls asleep at a café in the Shannon airport (after meeting Houellebecq to discuss the catalog project) and dreams that he is in a book, a book that recounts his life. He walks around a moment in this book, looking at the black letters against a white surface, at the names that appear and then disappear. And then he wakes up. As soon as he arrives in Paris, he calls Houellebecq to say that instead of giving him any old painting as a thank you for the catalog, Martin will paint Houellebecq’s portrait. Thus the two men are creating each other.

I haven’t even gotten to the murder part yet, or what I think Houellebecq might be doing with his Jed Martin character…but I’ll save that for another day.

It’s probably fairly clear that I’m a bit undecided about this work. I could discuss it for hours, for that reason alone it’s a fascinating piece of literature. I wish I’d read Houellebecq’s other novels first, so I’d know where to place this latest work. I have the sense this is a departure in many ways for Houellebecq, but I need to start reading if I want to see how…

10 Responses to “first thoughts on Houellebecq – La Carte et le Territoire”

  1. Charlotte

    One of the Houellebecq I haven’t read… I’m actually more familiar with the earlier ones, and my overall feelings align pretty well with the “consensus” you evoke: he seems to be a very clever writer (not because of brilliant prose, but because his books are many-layered and display an invasive self-awareness that seems pretty uniquely his), and I think he’s a little depressing, but not so much because of what he is describing as because of the way he describes it.
    I don’t know if I can clarify this, but in his “sad sex scenes,” for instance, the sadness for me does not come from the ugliness and banality he describes, but rather from the fact that he sees only the sadness and corruption of forms–which may exist, but is not all there is. What I seem to take away from his books is feeling very sorry for him (not for the character who is supposedly his representation, but for the narrator’s inability to forget himself for just one second). There’s no excitement for me, at any point, in H’s books.
    This being said, I’m actually interested to see him moving towards staging himself as a character. It’s an interesting experiment, perhaps that will focus this self-consciousness in one point of the novel and give the reader some breathing space!

    • Michelle

      Charlotte, I’m so glad you came and weighed in on this! Your opinion is wonderful here. I agree with your comment that Houellebecq seems unable to forget himself for even one second. I could see that in this novel, especially when all of a sudden a character gives a long-winded opinion on some aspect of contemporary culture – it’s so clearly Houellebecq the writer speaking (as opposed to Houellebecq the character). Yes, it is easy to come away from the book feeling sorry for him. He seems stuck in a certain self-perpetuated paradigm…

  2. Lilian Nattel

    Clever and dull doesn’t work for me unless it is so clever that it’s no longer dull. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that clever, because when it is, then it’s usually intelligent rather than clever, and wise at least in parts.

    • Michelle

      There were moments in this book where I felt Houellebecq had some wisdom to pass around. That was something I enjoyed about it. The cleverness, yes, is tough. Mainly because I become suspicious of what the writer is really trying to do.

  3. litlove

    I enjoyed Atomised (or Les particules elementaires), not for what happened in it, or for the quality of the writing, but for the ideas, which I do think Houellebecq does cleverly. To my mind, he is the 21st century bastard love child of the existentialists. There’s a painful confrontation with the distress and sorrow inextricable from living, but it’s filtered through a postmodern sensibility that plays with some of the fundamentals of narrative and undermines the reader’s confidence in representation. A word to Amateur Reader – yes, Houellebecq would take great pleasure in undermining any authority he may be attributed by his position as novelist, that’s just the sort of thing he’s interested in doing. You never know whether he is serious or not – he seems to be, sometimes it looks like he ought to be – but he’ll whip the rug out from under your feet at any opportunity. He’s not a great stylist, and he’s often irritating, but he IS an interesting writer.

    • Michelle

      I love this, Litlove, you’ve mirrored much of my reaction to this book, but much more concisely than I was able to. He isn’t a great stylish, which surprised me, because for some reason I was expecting this, but he IS interesting. He is honest as well, I think, but then it behooves the reader to remain aware that his perspective is probably a little problematic.

  4. Dorothy W.

    I like novels that are self-referential in some way, but I want there to be a satisfying larger purpose for it, and it sounds like that’s lacking here. That would be a disappointment. I’d like to read Houellebecq at some point, but I’m a little uncertain about it because I have this feeling he won’t be someone I like. But I need to read him to know for sure.

    • Michelle

      I would suggest starting with this novel when it comes out in English. I was literally scared to read him because I assumed it would all depress me, but this novel didn’t do that at all. It serves as a great introduction to his work, ironically since it’s his most recent novel, but it has motivated me to go backward and pick up his earlier novels.

  5. Michelle

    Now having had a few days away from the book, I can say that I wasn’t annoyed with the cleverness, but it kept me perpetually wary. I suppose I’m the kind of reader that hates being made fun of, and I wondered all along whether Houellebecq wasn’t have a little laugh at his readers from time to time.

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