Whatever by Michel Houellebecq (trans. Paul Hammond) Serpent’s Tail. 256 pp, $14.95.
The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq (trans. Frank Wynne) Vintage. 272 pp, $15.95.
Platform by Michel Houellebecq (trans. Frank Wynne) Vintage. 272 pp, $15.00.
The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq (trans. Gavin Bowd) Vintage. 352 pp, $16.00.
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq (trans. Gavin Bowd) Vintage. 288pp., $26.95.
Controversial authors are more interesting when the source of their controversy does not simply rest on the outer surfaces of their art but lies within its very structure. The French author Michel Houellebecq is not controversial because of what he writes or says—dozens of writers have said many of the same things about women, people of other cultures and religions, and contemporary society. Moreover, in retrospect his content is never quite as shocking as it’s made out to be. Houellebecq creates debate because it is difficult to settle upon an ultimate interpretation of his work. This ambiguity comes from his handling of the personal element in his novels: how much of Houellebecq the writer slips into his fictional creations and whether this is done deliberately or not. Looking over his five novels in succession reveals a real movement toward resolving this metafictional ambiguity and goes far to explain the near unequivocal critical praise he is now receiving for The Map and the Territory.
First, some history: Houellebecq is one of, if not the most renowned French author writing today. With the exception of some of his poems and essays, his entire body of work is available in English, as well as 25 other languages, something which has given rise to a large collection of international criticism. At the same time, his public persona is often the subject of controversy and so discussions about his off-the-page commentary abound. Both he and his work have been labeled many things, from genius and inspiring to provocative, misogynistic, or even racist. In 2010 Houellebecq won France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt, for his latest novel, La Carte et le Territoire (To be published as The Map and the Territory in the United States in January 2012 from Knopf). For many readers and critics, this was years in coming and a justly deserved mark of his contribution to French and international letters.
Houellebecq is the author of five novels and eight other books of poetry, stories, and essays. His work is ambitious—interested in philosophical questions of existence and perception as well as controversial scientific ideas about genetic engineering and cloning. Despite having a highly recognizable style, he is not a great stylist; his novels are compelling because they involve much uncomfortable honesty about human nature and are packed with challenging ideas. He has made depression and social pessimism a subject of literary meditation. He is also an obsessive cataloguer of contemporary cultural artifacts and trends, something which gives a documentary feel to much of his work.
In direct contrast to this broad scope, his work is also intensely personal: in some way, each of his novels oblige the reader to consider Michel Houellebecq the person alongside the story or the characters. Whether this is done deliberately or is an unconscious product of his writing style, whether this improves or detracts from the experience of reading his work, it is an unavoidable element of the Houellebecquian textual landscape.
His first novel, Whatever, which came out in France in 1994, was a cult success. It earned him his initial reputation as a provocateur, but also as champion for a kind of defeated, emasculated male. The novel follows an unnamed computer programmer and one of his colleagues, a hopelessly unattractive man named Raphael, throughout France as they train government workers in a new software program. In many ways this is a comic office novel, one of the first, and Houellebecq sketches the monotony and absurdity of modern office life with cutting clarity. But that comic tone does not remain, and the book becomes a study of depression as the main character experiences psychological collapse.
Whatever introduces the reader to Houellebecq’s style of noncommittal metafiction through an unnamed first-person narrator with a biography that happens to share several background stories with Houellebecq himself. The narrator even declares his autobiographical intent:
The pages that follow constitute a novel; I mean, a succession of anecdotes in which I am the hero. This autobiographical choice isn’t one, really: in any case I have no other way out. If I don’t write about what I’ve seen I will suffer just the same—and perhaps a bit more so. But only a bit, I insist on this. Writing brings scant relief. It retraces, it delimits. It lends a touch of coherence, the idea of a kind of realism. One stumbles around in a cruel fog, but there is the odd pointer. Chaos is no more than a few feet away. A meagre victory, in truth.
The autobiographical framework is a little sloppy. The character isn’t exactly Houellebecq (this becomes clear as the story progresses) but neither is he a completely autonomous fictional character. He is perhaps meant to be someone like Houellebecq but engaged in a series of situations that Houellebecq himself never quite encountered. And so we choose to take this as pure fiction, forgiving the narrator’s lapses in register as well as his more shocking statements, because the book ultimately settles its discussion on other, equally interesting questions. The fact that Houellebecq leads the reader to consider Whatever from a metafictional angle and then refuses or is unable to fulfill the expectation seems to stem either from Houellebecq’s immaturity as a writer at the time or his psychological state when he wrote the novel.
His second novel, The Elementary Particles, exhibits a similar metafictional problem despite its more complex storyline and intricate philosophical and scientific meditations. This is the story of two men, half-brothers Michel and Bruno, growing up during the sexual revolution. In the simplest sense it is the account of the lovelessness of their existence. While Bruno visits free love holiday communes and swingers’ bars, Michel goes to university and lives like a monk. Bruno is a thoroughly willing member of the free love society; unfortunately sex isn’t as “free” as the hippies suggest and Bruno doesn’t have what it takes to “sell” on the sexual marketplace. He becomes a sex addict, living for and through the physical pleasures brought to his body. Michel, on the other hand, maintains a nearly complete physical and psychological distance from everyone he encounters, even those he “loves.” The men represent two possible extremes: Bruno is body, Michel is brain. Yet both men are isolated and depressed. The story of their failed lives is used as background to explain the futuristic scenario in which the novel is lightly nestled—that humans are now a cloned, asexual, and immortal race. But this sci-fi idea works as a parentheses to what is really an examination of sexual behavior in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, a perfect platform for Houellebecq to develop his thoughts on the commercialization of sex in contemporary society.
As with the unnamed protagonist in Whatever, in The Elementary Particles Houellebecq draws liberally from his own life in creating both Bruno and Michel’s background. (The further choice of naming one of his characters Michel is either creative laziness or purposeful provocation). Yet unlike Whatever, here Houellebecq tells the story using a third-person narrator, allowing him to intersperse the novel with declarative social discourse like the following:
The men of their generation found themselves in much the same position, yet this common destiny fostered no solidarity. At forty, they continued to pursue young women—with a measure of success, at least for those who, having skillfully slipped into the social game, had attained a certain position, whether intellectual, financial or social. For women, their mature years brought only failure, masturbation and shame.
This isn’t a neutral omniscient narrator who zooms in to reveal Michel or Bruno’s thoughts; this narrator has personality and opinions of his own that aren’t always directly attributable to or interested in either main character. And it isn’t just the narrator who slips up in this way. Every so often Bruno or Michel will introduce a thought, most often a literary opinion, that while not completely implausible is still somewhat out of step with the character’s background and general education as presented in the novel.
Unfortunately, like in Whatever, this metafictional maneuvering doesn’t serve to heighten the meaning of the story itself or the novel’s message. It just makes the reader begin to think that Houellebecq cannot step aside to let his fictional world play itself out. Despite the creative worth of the novel’s story and the acute social critique that lies within, despite the intricate beauty of some of the writing in The Elementary Particles, the reader can’t help feeling increasingly suspicious that Houellebecq is unable to maintain narrative consistency because he is more interested in using his characters and his novel as mouthpieces for certain provocative ideas.
Platform, Houellebecq’s third novel, is notorious for having garnered him much criticism. Remarks he made during an interview about the book led to him being brought to court for inciting racial and religious hatred, a serious charge in France that carries a stiff prison sentence. (Houellebecq was eventually acquitted.) This third novel is about a young man who becomes involved in a not-so-subtle marketing campaign to promote sexual tourism for Europeans in Thailand. The book ends with a spectacular event that effectively terminates the campaign’s future hopes of success and eliminates the narrator’s only chance at personal happiness.
Houellebecq is thematically redundant, even obsessive, and this idea of sexual capitalism that he introduces in both Whatever and The Elementary Particles finds its full exploration in Platform; the novel is an elaborately designed vehicle for promoting this theory.
It isn’t surprising that Platform earned Houellebecq more criticism than any of his previous work, and not simply for its provocative focus on prostitution, its dozens of extremely explicit sex scenes and its inclusion of radical Islamic terrorists. This novel, more than any other, reveals the problems with Houellebecq’s ambiguous metafictional narrative style.
In Platform Houellebecq returns to his first-person narrator, who is (again) named Michel. On the one hand, he seems to have repaired the rift in register that was so jarring in Whatever and The Elementary Particles, and when Michel makes declarative generalizations about the world, they fit the character as Houellebecq has created him. He does continue (as do all of Houellebecq’s narrators) to have an extensive literary background that is somewhat unexplained. But, leaving this and the tease of his first name aside, there remains a question as to whether the narrator is meant to be a hero or an anti-hero. Readers don’t always need a black-and-white distinction—in Whatever, for example, which begins to run into the same question, the issue is resolved because the story maintains an intensely interior focus and is ultimately not much more than a portrait of a deeply broken individual. But in Platform this hero/anti-hero ambiguity becomes a real issue for the reader and his willingness to follow and accept the narrowness of Michel’s perspective (sex as cure-all for human suffering), his expectations for women in his offered vision (to live as free, radically generous sexual beings), and his provocative statements about people, cultures, and religions.
The Possibility of an Island, published in 2005, has several ingredients for resolving this issue of metafictional ambiguity, but still it fails. This is a fascinating book, however, a novel of real philosophical and meditative import. Houellebecq is a self-confessed admirer of H.P. Lovecraft, and in his excellent biography of Lovecraft he says:
Lovecraft’s body of work can be compared to a gigantic dream machine, of astounding breadth and efficacy. There is nothing tranquil or discreet in his literature. Its impact on the reader’s mind is savagely, frighteningly brutal and dangerously slow to dissipate. Rereading produces no notable modification other than that, eventually, one ends up wondering: how does he do it?
It isn’t hard to see where Houellebecq reaches for this in his own fiction, coming close in The Elementary Particles. The Possibility of an Island is a much grander and more successful attempt. This is Houellebecq’s science fiction novel, a story of human cloning and radical personal isolation. It is his first conclusive effort to create a dystopian future out of his usual social critique. The novel is a very good read; it exhibits Houellebecq’s most creative fictional inventions as well as his most elegant and moving writing on solitude.
Briefly, The Possibility of an Island follows a succession of cloned Daniels in their high-security, hermit-like existence, as they read through Daniel 1’s journey to cult membership and eventual cloning. Daniel 1, who is contemporary with the book’s readers, is a stand-up comedian and filmmaker whose work is intentionally as violent and provocative as possible. Although the book continues to explore Houellebecq’s sexual capitalism idea, its focus is shifted to consider aging within that system. Through the story of Daniel 1 and his marriage, subsequent divorce, and eventual relationship with a young actress, as well as the tangential stories within the novel, Houellebecq meditates on the ignominy of losing one’s physical beauty and youthful health. The novel invents a near future where people will choose to commit a form of ritual suicide instead of facing age-related decline.
Superficially, Daniel 1 might be considered a fully realized fictional character in his own right, but he suffers the fate of all previous Houellebecq narrators: he could be easily substituted for by the unnamed narrator in Whatever or Michel in Platform. No matter the cosmetic differences, Daniel 1 is a slightly older version of those same depressed young men and he experiences his life and relationships in almost the exactly the same way as all previous protagonists. Daniel 24 and Daniel 25, however, probably due to the creative work needed to move them out of the 20th century, get closer to revealing that Houellebecq will ultimately find a way to resolve the lack of definition and purpose in his metafictional techniques.
Houellebecq’s work has not gone unrecognized. Two of his novels were awarded reputable literary prizes. In a disputed decision that resulted in the prize patron leaving the award, France’s Prix Novembre was transformed into the Prix Décembre after The Elementary Particles won it. (The book also won the International IMPAC Dublin Award.) The Possibility of an Island won France’s Prix Interallié, a prize for a work of fiction written by a journalist. However, in France, meaningful recognition comes with a Goncourt, and Houellebecq was snubbed three times before finally winning the award last year with The Map and the Territory.
I don’t think his previous failures to earn the prize were only the result of literary politics and bad luck. As I suggest here, his first four novels are fascinating works of fiction—each of them admirable, thought-provoking, and ambitious—but The Map and the Territory is a wholly unique achievement. It is a different creature altogether, and its metafictional coherence is outstanding. In essence, it is the first time Houellebecq embraces his metafictional techniques consciously, overtly, and without ambiguity.
The title The Map and the Territory invites the reader to consider a famous quote by philosopher/semanticist Alfred Korzybski: “the map is not the territory.” Korzybski developed the theory of general semantics, which is concerned with unlinking the abstraction of an object from the object itself. A painting or a photograph, for example, is only a representation of the original item. Houellebecq first engages with this idea by tellingthe story of Jed Martin, an artist obsessed with representation. The novel covers Jed’s entire life, although it focuses with greater detail on certain periods: his childhood, his rise to fame, his single greatest love relationship, and his eventual withdrawal from society. That story alone is a careful and moving portrait of one man’s relationship with his father, with love, with art, and with French society. It also picks up the same critical discussion on aging that Houellebecq began in The Possibility of an Island and completes it with just as much power, but much more finesse.
In all of his novels, Houellebecq likes to pass off his narrator’s generalizations as bracingly honest commentary applicable to all of humanity; it hasn’t always worked. In The Map and the Territory it does. His narrative distance is flawless, his embodiment of character exists without any frustrating cracks. Also, much of his work, despite an interest in international ideas and trends, is France-centered, yet The Map and the Territory is an explicit engagement with contemporary France. For that alone, the book could have earned its Goncourt.
Accompanying Jed Martin’s story are two complementary tangents. The first is Jed’s relationship with the writer Michel Houellebecq, who is asked to write a kind of autobiography and critical analysis of the artist for an upcoming exhibition. Over the course of several meetings the men become friendly with each other, and then one day Houellebecq the writer is found murdered, an event which introduces the second tangential story, that of the detective, Jasselin, in charge of solving Houellebecq’s murder.
That second story of Houellebecq’s murder is interesting for a number of reasons, not least because it gives Houellebecq the writer an opportunity to poke fun at himself and the reader with respect to certain myths about his public persona. In a memorable scene, Jed and his father are discussing Houellebecq and Jed’s father says, “He’s a good author, it seems to me. He’s pleasant to read, and has quite an accurate view of society,” a comment which (although hilarious to the reader) gets Jed’s attention, who then thinks:
If someone as deeply paralysed in such a hopeless and mortal routine, someone as far down the path of darkness, down the Valley of the Shadow of Death, as his father, had noticed Houellebecq’s existence, it was because there had to be something compelling about this author.
As presented in The Map and the Territory, Houellebecq the writer is either a subject of praise, scorn, or ridicule, a fairly accurate mirror of the range of opinions about him in the real world. One very sharp application of this clever metafictional twist occurs at Houellebecq’s funeral, when the casket passes before a crowd of fans and friends (Jed Martin included). Because of the savage nature of his death, there wasn’t much left of the body, and the funeral home makes an economical decision to use a child-sized casket. With perfect narrative control, Houellebecq subtly camps up the sorrow of the crowd as it reacts to the casket and suddenly, despite a real poignancy in the moment, the reader can’t help laughing out loud.
But there is more here too. Houellebecq’s murder is a grisly, disgusting affair. Even the attending officers are so upset upon what they’ve seen that most have either fainted or are vomiting outside the home where the remains of the body are found. Jasselin and his team, and even Jed Martin, work together to make sense of what has happened. This quest for meaning in the author’s horrific murder, which proves futile, gives Houellebecq the chance to pay homage to H.P. Lovecraft yet again, this time without the use of science fiction. In his essay on Lovecraft, Houellebecq writes:
Of course, life has no meaning. But neither does death. And this is another thing that curdles the blood when one discovers Lovecraft’s universe. The deaths of his heroes have no meaning. Death brings no appeasement. It in no way allows the story to conclude. Implacably, HPL destroys his characters, evoking only the dismemberment of marionettes.
Seen in this light, Houellebecq’s death is unmistakably a tease. It does not make sense; it will never be a part of the story’s conclusion.
But making himself a character, however exaggerated, however true, seems to have freed Houellebecq from his earlier inability to do something meaningful with the metafictional elements of his writing. This isn’t only about getting a few laughs from the reader. In the novel Michel Houellebecq writes the catalog for 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. That’s the first layer.
Then after meeting Houellebecq to discuss the catalog project, Jed Martin falls asleep at a café in the Shannon airport and dreams:
He was in the middle of a white, apparently limitless space. No horizon could be made out, the matt-white floor merging, very far away, with an identically coloured sky. On the surface of the floor could be seen, irregularly arranged, from place to place, blocks of text with black letters forming a slight relief; each of the blocks could include fifty words. Jed then realised that he was standing in a book, and wondered if this book told the story of 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 back 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. And so in this way, the novel has the two men simultaneously creating each other.
I should say creating representations of each other, because each of these layers of metafiction must be considered with respect to the map/territory relation. The portrait is not the man. The catalog is not the man. The novel is only a model of reality. It is only fiction. Would that word “only” be a real limitation. Instead, Houellebecq has shown us its tremendous possibility.
Michelle Bailat-Jones is a writer and translator. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in various journals, including: Hayden’s Ferry Review, Cerise Press, Ascent, Necessary Fiction, The Kenyon Review, and Fogged Clarity. She writes about literature at Pieces.
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