Why can’t he be loved?
- The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Gavin Bowd
Heinemann, 291 pp, £17.99, September 2011, ISBN 978 0 434 02141 3
Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory tells the story, from the standpoint of a future art history, of a canonical artist of the early 21st century, a Frenchman with the curiously American-sounding name Jed Martin. Such a backward-gazing Künstlerroman invites comparison with the trajectory of the author himself. And Houellebecq also includes a character bearing his own name and more or less corresponding to his public image as the sad bad boy of French literature, and does something unusual with this by now familiar device. Here the famous writer ‘Michel Houellebecq’ – a drunken misanthrope with the fondness for Thai prostitutes we might expect from the author of Plateforme (2001), and a less expected enthusiasm for the writings of William Morris – becomes the victim of an extravagantly gruesome murder.
The Map and the Territory therefore carries out a kind of double self-annihilation: the imagined slaying of the writer called ‘Houellebecq’, and the aesthetic triumph of an artist superficially the opposite of the novelist we’ve come to know. The eerily blank and neutral creations of Jed Martin imply a placid acceptance of things as they are (‘I want simply to give an account of the world’ is his sole comment on the meaning of his work, in an interview with Art Press). Houellebecq himself has usually denounced things as they are in a spirit of rageful complicity. A few lines from his first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte (published in 1994 and translated, with a shrug, as Whatever), distil the previously prevailing mood: ‘I don’t like this world. I definitely do not like it. The society in which I live disgusts me; advertising sickens me; computers make me puke.’
Whence this comprehensive nausea? Houellebecq’s insight, pursued across his first four novels with a horrified single-mindedness, was that human relationships today fall prey to the corrosive logic of neoliberalism. A liberalised emotional economy is marked by ‘the breakdown of the traditional couple’, as he put it 1998’s Les Particules élémentaires (the book which made his name, translated as Atomised), and by the attenuation of family life: ‘He wanted to do his best for the boy,’ the main character thinks about his son. ‘As long as it did not require too much of his time.’ In such a world, the receipt of love is no more guaranteed than a salary. Flexibility rather than loyalty is the order of the day, and even those who win comfortable and prestigious positions as love objects must worry constantly about dismissal without notice should their market value drop or their partner decide to trade up. A drawn-out old age of emotional and sexual penury threatens all those who – inevitably, unforgivably – lose their youth and beauty. Physically attractive and wealthy people are only human trinkets on the way to being trash.
Houellebecq first announced his theme of the liberalised emotional life in one of the inspired passages of cod sociology, the best and funniest thing in his writing, that have made his translated fiction so welcome in an idea-shy Anglophone culture of the novel. Here he glosses the phrase ‘extension du domaine de la lutte’, with its ring of Marxist agit-prop:
Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperisation … In a totally liberal economic system certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude. Economic liberalism is an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society. Sexual liberalism is likewise an extension of the domain of the struggle.
Better, of course, to be a sexual tycoon than a sexual pauper – but neither type can have much experience of love, the missing element in Houellebecq’s throwaway world. The fate of a friendship, for instance, is almost always described in terms like those used by the narrator of Whatever when he recounts a last chat with a friend in crisis: ‘He said to me: “See you soon.” I don’t believe it for a moment. I get the feeling we’ll never see each other again.’
The derelictions of parents are a source of more lasting trauma. Houellebecq has rarely seemed an angrier writer than when describing the human careers of the emotional liberals, whether free spirits or entrepreneurs, in mock-historical deadpan, as with the protagonist’s hateful progenitors in Atomised. ‘While travelling in the United States,’ Serge Clément
had become convinced that plastic surgery offered excellent career prospects … His only problem was money: he needed funds to start out in business. Martin Ceccaldi, impressed by his future son-in-law’s entrepreneurial spirit, agreed to lend him the money. Clément’s first clinic opened in Neuilly in 1953. Promoted in a series of positive articles in women’s magazines – then rapidly expanding – it proved an outstanding success, and Serge opened a second clinic in 1955 in the hills above Cannes.
The passage follows Serge’s marriage to Janine Ceccaldi (who shares her surname with Houellebecq’s own mother) through to the birth of their son: ‘The couple quickly realised that the burden of caring for a child was incompatible with their ideal of personal freedom, so in 1958 they agreed to send Bruno to Algeria to live with his maternal grandparents.’ Divorce soon follows. The reader who notices the close parallels with Houellebecq’s biography – he too was raised by his maternal grandparents when his hippie mother declined to pack him along on her spiritual journey – may also notice, with a shiver, that Houellebecq’s murderer in The Map and the Territory is another plastic surgeon with a clinic in the hills above Cannes: father and killer are one.
The casual-seeming sentences from Atomised lay bare the kind of associative chain running beneath Houellebecq’s work. Modernity as Americanisation is linked, by way of plastic surgery, to a pitiless cult of youth and beauty, and both of these to a mercenary or exploitative approach to personal relations (the loan cadged from the father-in-law); and at the end of the chain lies an abandoned child – or murdered adult – resembling Houellebecq himself. ‘Familles, je vous hais,’ Gide cried, but where can we find a parent discussed with more potent contempt than in Houellebecq’s letter on his mother in Public Enemies, an exchange with Bernard-Henri Lévy? He never felt greater disgust for this ‘absolutely self-centred creature’, he says, than when she told him, on one of perhaps 15 encounters between mother and son, that his former nanny had asked after him: ‘She thought it was funny, inappropriate, that my old Malagasy nanny should ask her about me after 30 years; I found it incredibly touching, but I didn’t even try to explain it to her.’