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…