La carte et le territoire (Michel Houellebecq)


This latest and indeed prize-winning book by Michel Houellebecq is at least overtly the story of Jed Martin, an artist who first of all photographs mechanical components, then Michelin maps; then he produces paintings of people at work as a result of which he becomes very rich and shuts himself away in rural seclusion.  At the end of his life he produces works in video showing objects of memory being slowly destroyed by an encroaching nature.  He also makes the acquaintance of the writer Michel Houellebecq, who is first of all sinking into depression (and failing in personal hygiene) while living in Ireland, then perks up after returning to France before coming to a bad end.

I certainly enjoyed the book, though a lot of the satire on important French media and political types passed me by.  I wonder what Frédéric Beigbeder thought of being assigned a lifespan of 71 years?  Well, it’s more than Houellebecq gave himself anyway.  The description of the art world, and in particular Jed’s works, was very well done I thought.  The superimposed timelapse images of decay and destruction as described at the end definitely frightened me.  Since they’re essentially constructive and don’t require any manual skill to execute, I wonder why Houellebecq doesn’t have a go at producing them himself.  Maybe he feels he’s already done that in his books.

The features of the Houellebecq novel are present and correct:  Michel Houellebecq, against the world, against life, as he himself might put it.  But I’m going to try to see what positive values there are at least implicit here.

Jed Martin has two (serious) girlfriends:  Genevieve from Madagascar and Olga from Russia.  Clearly they represent two poles.  Genevieve regards her art as a game and her works are described sympathetically.  She works as an escort to support herself (and Jed to an extent) and contracts a stable marriage with one of her clients.  There are some picturesque Madagascan customs described that involve digging up the dead and having them take part in family occasions.

Olga puts her career before Jed when she leave him to go back to Russia.  She features as parasitically connected to the art world.  Her father is an academic entomologist.

Clearly Genevieve is on the side of the good things–she has a proper French name,  after all.  Commercial sex gets a good write-up, on the grounds that the act is purified if not sanctified by payment, and burial is from many angles presented as superior to cremation.  She also gets the chance to start a family.  Contrariwise, Olga fails to develop a family life when she returns to Russia and insects feature very prominently as sources of disgust.

The discussions that Jed has with his father about Charles Fourier, and with Houellebecq about William Morris, seem to revolve around the idea of work for work’s sake, or intrinsic motivation to put it in terms that Houellebecq would severely object to.  There is no sign that doing their work actually causes anyone any satisfaction, unless it’s Marylin the publicist who needs something to compensate the complete emptiness of her personal life.  In fact, I think the only affect Jed derives from his work is when the picture of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst dividing up the art market makes him sick.  Since it says art market theirs is purely extrinsic motivation, see…

Then there are Jasselin’s dogs as the caricature of a child, in the end condemned to childlike as sexuality, so a child would be a good thing.  And Jed’s social network, a few bare branches, so a luxuriantly intertwined tree would be a good thing…

This looks not too different from  mainline European (not Anglo-American) conservatism to me.  And with added sex, though we’re finding it a bit difficult by now:  sexuality is a fragile thing, it is difficult to enter and easy to leave.  I don’t think you can call his views Vichy, since the unwelcoming, aggressive and stupid inhabitants of rural France get a pasting, as does the cult of local produce and handicrafts.

But I feel like a typical (self-parodic!) moment of gloom to end with:

La nuit tombait sur la rue Jeanne-d’Arc, les feux rouges des voitures s’éloignaient au ralenti vers le boulevard Vincent-Auriol: Au loin, le dôme du Panthéon était baigné d’une inexplicable lumière verdâtre, un peu comme si des aliens sphériques projetaient une attaque massive sur la région parisienne. Des gens mouraient sans doute, à cette minute même, çà et là, dans la ville.

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