Why can’t he be loved?

Benjamin Kunkel

  • 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.’

Psychobiography hardly looks necessary in a case like this, being virtually supplied by the author himself. Still, it bears noticing to what an extraordinary degree Houellebecq seems engaged in the psychic task of compensation. His parents treated him as if he were of no great importance, yet through the exemplary character of this neglect – as Houellebecq takes it to be – he has himself become an important, because representative and articulate, figure. It’s as if by abandoning him his parents crowned him the king of a rainy country, the central child of postwar Europe. In Houellebecq’s poetry, where a genuinely affecting sincerity seems connected to the straightforward mediocrity of the verse, one particularly unstylised auto-therapeutic cry stands out: ‘Pourquoi ne pouvons-nous jamais/Jamais/ Etre aimés?’ A painful question, but far more so in the first person singular: ‘Why can’t I be loved?’ It is the difference between thinking that love is impossible under actually existing capitalism and thinking that it is possible, only not for me. No doubt a man who despises his mother can write about the world with a ruthlessness denied us momma’s boys – but frequently one sees Houellebecq as a fatally damaged guy who has elaborated a howl of personal pain into an unconvincing sociology of the affections.

In the best pages of Atomised and Whatever, Houellebecq’s vision of a disposable humanity has been enough to justify his self-description as a writer of ‘materialist horror stories’. But on the whole his fiction has seemed an ambiguous achievement, as much a symptom as a diagnosis of the condition it attacks: often indifferently written, and plotted in half-hearted obedience to melodramatic cliché, it has also been a characterological wasteland. Houellebecq has sometimes been wittily self-conscious about this. As the narrator of Whatever explains, ‘there are some authors who employ their talent in the delicate description of varying states of the soul, character traits etc. I shall not be counted among these. All that accumulation of realistic detail, with clearly differentiated characters hogging the limelight, has always seemed pure bullshit to me.’ Moreover, ‘the simple play of historical forces’ made the post-individual approach increasingly realistic, as human personalities became more uniform. But Whatever also pictures one of Houellebecq’s sexual paupers with a comic vividness rare among the characters (if that isn’t too strong a word for these narrative time-servers) of the later books: ‘The problem with Raphaël Tisserand – the foundation of his personality, indeed – is that he is extremely ugly. So ugly that his appearance repels women, and he never gets to sleep with them … He has the exact appearance of a buffalo toad – thick, gross, heavy, deformed features.’ Not much foundation for a personality maybe, but enough that the reader can feel a certain pang when this toad is squashed on the highway – ‘I was never to see Tisserand again; he was killed in his car that night’ – and remember him after the book is shut.

Houellebecq’s descriptions of female beauty – not to speak of female personalities – have been, by contrast, of a remarkable nullity. This is striking in a writer whose male characters can be divided into alter egos and non-entities, and whose alter egos mainly want to get laid: ‘His only goal in life had been sexual,’ Bruno reflects in Atomised. The sex scenes in that novel, like the many similar orgy and sex-club episodes in Platform and The Possibility of an Island (2005), are so clichéd that they might have been composed by a blind male virgin who’d read a lot of smut by Braille and knew about women only that tits should be firm and pussies tight. And the love objects bestowed on the male heroes of the middle three novels acquire hardly more individuality than the human sex toys going up and down as they pass by like plastic horses on a carousel.

Valérie in Platform is much like Christiane in Atomised: a generically attractive woman on the brink of middle age who loves the protagonist unconditionally and for no apparent reason, and whose main personality trait is a kind of blanket agreeableness extending to entire sexual complaisance with respect to the boyfriend, as well as to other partners of both sexes. These nice ladies mother their men by being whores, as it were, granting their sullen, mumbling boyfriends both utter emotional devotion and complete licence to screw around. The only sign that Houellebecq perceives the fantasy character of such frictionless arrangements comes when he summarily kills off both Christiane and Valérie: one, having been crippled by a spinal disease, plunges her wheelchair down a flight of stairs; the other is dispatched by a Muslim suicide bomber. They were too good for this world.

Esther in The Possibility of an Island is a little more convincing, if only because instead of suffering an emotionally and narratively convenient death she ditches Houellebecq’s alter ego to take a job in America. Her energetic participation in a marathon orgy in Madrid has already led the main narrator – the other narrators are his genetic clones, testifying from the ‘neohuman’ future – to conclude that ‘the centuries-old male project’ of ridding sex of ‘any emotional connotation’ has at last been accomplished by today’s young women: ‘They had finally succeeded in tearing from their hearts one of the oldest human feelings, and now it was done … at no moments in their lives would they ever know love.’ But Houellebecq too often writes as if personality and emotion could be liquidated without remainder – as if the old appendages of love and friendship could be lopped off without any lingering pain in the phantom limbs. Of course his alter egos try to have things both ways, engaging in serial post-individual couplings even as they mourn the loss of ‘the oldest human feelings’. But since they betray no capacity for love, they come across as sentimental rather than heartbroken. The impression left by Platform and Possibility is of a mawkish cynicism.

Houellebecq’s decline as a writer from novel to novel, across a span when his fame only grew, was discouraging: here was the ‘literary’ fiction perhaps most widely read and discussed throughout the world over the past decade, taking as its subject a new cheapness of human life – and the books themselves could be pretty lazy, cheap and meretricious. Whether or not the family and the couple could hold out against the coercive laws of competition, literature appeared to have succumbed: what separated it now from middlebrow entertainment?

Does The Map and the Territory kill off the old Michel Houellebecq – or only his namesake? Most immediately striking is the absence of both pornographic extravaganzas and sociological complaint; The Map and the Territory forgoes sex scenes altogether and is sparing with its explicit indictments of society. Jed dislikes the ‘infantilising and concentration-camp-like experience’ of commercial air travel, but for the most part he is a man without opinions, observing the world with a neutrality approaching that of his sublimely detached art.

His mature work comprises three phases, in three different media. He first achieves renown with photographic close-ups, sumptuous and technically impeccable, of Michelin maps of provincial France; in them he finds ‘the essence of modernity, of scientific and technical apprehension of the world … combined with the essence of animal life’. The first map he photographs bears a sentimental charge: it covers the department where his grandmother (who loved her husband ‘passionately’) once lived. The association, familiar in Houellebecq, between the grandparents’ generation and a love worthy of the name is thus connected, in The Map and the Territory, to a newfound admiration for honourable and technically expert work of the kind embodied by precision cartography and by well-made objects in general.

Following a vernissage of the Michelin photos, Jed becomes capable of supporting himself through his art. He is celebrated by the critics and wins a spectacular Russian girlfriend called Olga. An employee of Michelin’s communications department who sees the PR potential of Jed’s work, Olga is also beautiful, accommodating and otherwise personality-free, and one strength of The Map and the Territory is to limit her role in the action. Jed raises no protest when Olga returns to Russia for professional reasons, and soon embarks on a second major artistic phase: a series of some 60 oil paintings that owe a debt to Rembrandt and Velázquez and survey the division of labour in Western society. The ‘Series of Simple Professions’ extends from Ferdinand Desroches, Horse Butcher to Maya Dubois, Remote Maintenance Assistance, while a ‘Series of Business Compositions’ contains as its masterpiece Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology. Together the paintings form an ‘image of the functioning of the economy as a whole’ without implying any commentary or judgment. In The Architect Jean-Pierre Martin Leaving the Management of His Business, Jed depicts his melancholy, driven and remote father on the eve of his retirement. Another canvas recalls Jed’s college girlfriend Geneviève, who worked as an escort with cheerful matter-of-factness and whose simple profession (‘with a supplement of one hundred euros for anal sex’) never provoked any misgivings on Jed’s part.

One of the ‘Business Compositions’, however, defeats even Jed’s extraordinary draughtsmanship: Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market. The main obstacle seems to be Koons’s face: an elusive combination of the entirely bland and the utterly corrupt that suggests something of the representational difficulties posed by our moment of capitalism as a whole. Jed abandons the canvas, and selects the world-famous writer Michel Houellebecq as his representative artist. With the portrait of the novelist, Jed’s oil painting phase is complete and his triumph prepared. Houellebecq himself writes an essay for the exhibition catalogue – he observes that Jed’s view of capitalism is more like ‘that of an ethnologist … than that of a political commentator’ – and the canvases go on to sell for an average of half a million euros a piece. Jed’s work literally reflects the market, and the market likes what it sees. He has been ‘singled out’, he realises, ‘by the law of supply and demand’.

Jed’s life can be discussed almost exclusively in terms of his work because he refrains from human relationships to a degree unusual even in Houellebecq’s fiction. He sees his father once a year, for Christmas dinner, when the two struggle to find anything to talk about. (Jed’s mother committed suicide – it is never clear why – when the boy was six.) He feels stirrings of affection for Houellebecq, but the writer is not long for this world and anyway their relationship resembles that between Fernando Pessoa and his dying heteronym in Saramago’s Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis: male friendship is exempted from some of its ordinary difficulties when it can take place between two aspects of a single person. As for la jolie russe Olga, her bid to get back together with Jed after ten years apart ends in failure.

Olga and Jed first see each other again at a party thrown for the French glitterati by a celebrated TV presenter, the subject of one of Jed’s paintings. The festive occasion – there are Breton bagpipers, Vendée peasants and ‘a famous Corsican polyphony group’ – is spoiled somewhat when Jed, having drunk too much, vomits in the TV presenter’s courtyard and, later, is incapable of consummating his reunion with Olga. It would never occur to Jed, apolitical and a non-reader, that Houellebecq’s first novel began with a scene of the narrator puking at a party, or that he himself might be afflicted by the same overwhelming nausea – ‘the society in which I live disgusts me’ – described in Whatever. The scene nevertheless breathes the suggestion that French society may have emetic properties, especially at the altitude where money and culture meet in a single cloud.

The next day, Jed leaves Olga once and for all and drives into the countryside to visit Houellebecq, where the writer now lives in a house that once belonged to his grandparents. Afterwards (‘Jed intended to see the writer again, but he had a feeling this wouldn’t happen’), the artist understands, without knowing why, that his worldly life has effectively come to an end: ‘His human relations, already few, would one by one dry up and disappear, and he would be in life like he was at present in the perfectly finished interior of his Audi Allroad A6: peaceful and joyless, completely neutral.’ The adjectives recall the ‘neohuman’ life of the solitary clones in Possibility, whose chief spiritual authority, the Supreme Sister, in her Instructions for a Peaceful Life emphasises the ‘obvious neutrality of the real’.

In his final phase as an artist, Jed refurbishes his own grandparents’ former house, and, shut up in rural isolation, creates a series of videos. One of these, a double-exposure, depicts components of computer hardware, shown in close-up and so resembling the buildings of futuristic cities, being engulfed by a sea of vegetation. Houellebecq’s descriptions of microprocessors, batteries and memory cards ‘swept away by a wave of grass and leaves’ and drowned in ‘plant magma’ can only be called beautiful, a word one hardly needed in discussing the earlier fiction. Another video, made using a time-lapse technique, subjects photographs of the few people Jed has known to accelerated decomposition under the sun and rain. In these essays in transience, future art historians – writing, one gathers, from a hegemonic China – discern not only a farewell to ‘the industrial age in Europe’ but also ‘symbols of the generalised annihilation of the human species’.

The big question posed by The Map and the Territory is what Jed Martin – with so little to say for himself but saying it, through his art, with such skill – can be taken to express on Houellebecq’s behalf. Certainly the book betrays an elevated aesthetic ambition. To write about a fictional artist of genius is to court an exacting judgment of one’s own writing, and Houellebecq can be credited with considerable success in this respect: in its broad architecture and its individual sentences, The Map and the Territory shows a care and confidence missing from the earlier books. (Houellebecq’s best paragraphs, before now, lay in Whatever, with its colloquial roughness and bratty energy.) It’s too bad, then, that Gavin Bowd’s translation is no more and sometimes less than adequate. The decision not to respect Houellebecq’s punctuation, so that a single flowing sentence in the original will become three abrupt declarations in English, seems a mistake: the herky-jerky English misses a cool impersonal eloquence in the French. Other weaknesses in the translation, though smaller, are harder to excuse. On page 186, a police investigator watches as ‘an arm (a woman’s, perhaps Lucie herself?) emerged to shut the door’ and two sentences later he thinks: ‘He could have forced his way into the establishment and demand that she give a statement.’ Such small blunders litter the book. The translation isn’t exactly bad, but in a novel metafictionally about a painter with expert technique one would have liked to see Houellebecq’s lines transposed by a defter hand.

Jed’s art in its more worldy phases implies a celebration of skilled work. Why else would both Houellebecq and Jed’s father discuss William Morris at length? As Jean-Pierre Martin explains to his son, Morris rejected the factory-like and protocapitalist art production of Renaissance painters: ‘Exactly like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst today, with an iron hand the so-called great masters of the Renaissance ruled workshops of 50, even a hundred assistants.’ Morris, on the other hand, held that ‘the distinction between art and the worker, between design and execution, had to be abolished.’ Houellebecq, when Jed last sees him, takes up the hand-carved baton: ‘The essential principle of William Morris was that design and execution should never be separated, no more than they were in the Middle Ages.’

The relationship between Arts and Crafts socialism and Jed’s painterly survey of neoliberal professionals is slightly ambiguous. On the one hand, the labour of Damien Hirst or Bill Gates is less alienated than most; captains of industry give orders instead of taking them. And Jed’s work evinces a sincere respect for what his father calls ‘the honour of the function’, whether the function skilfully carried out is that of call-girl or horse butcher. Indeed, in Public Enemies Houellebecq writes to Lévy that the most gratifying response from his readers comes when they say: ‘Thanks for all the hard work.’ But novel-writing, like oil painting, represents a backwater of artisanal production in an economy otherwise dominated by giant multinationals. The neoliberal society that Jed surveys in his art – and from which he otherwise feels so estranged – presents a dystopian antithesis to Morris: de-skilling rather than artisanal, competitive rather than co-operative, atomistic rather than communitarian, automated instead of handmade.

Not that Jed’s admirers see his paintings as a denunciation of capitalism from the standpoint of Arts and Crafts socialism. Their moral blankness has something to do with the collapse of distance between such artworks and universal commodification: the condition they capture and are captured by. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the plastic arts became a developed field for speculative investment; since then, the exchange value of a work of art has seemed more and more to neutralise any critical, much less utopian valence it might have. Walk into a gallery in Paris, London or New York and what you see on the walls is a quantity of money requiring, for purposes of decoration, a euphemistic presentation as art.

Houellebecq is no leftist. He is an atheist and libertine who has nevertheless shown a revulsion towards abortion, divorce and euthanasia that makes him look like a conservative Catholic. And the romantic embrace of manual skill and rural community in Morris’s socialism has its reactionary variants in France as it has in England. In the epilogue to The Map and the Territory Houellebecq saves a curse for a political left unable – even ‘since the last financial crisis, far worse than 2008’ – ‘to attract anyone beyond their usual clientele of spiteful masochists’. Yet no other contemporary writer, left or right, has made the supposedly outdated Freudo-Marxism of Herbert Marcuse look like such a prescient glimpse into the future we now inhabit.

Marcuse’s formula for the libidinal condition of the postwar capitalist era was ‘repressive desublimation’. The ‘desublimation’ part referred to a greater freedom to seek genital gratification than bourgeois society had previously granted the respectable middle classes. Such licence, however, had become the accomplice of repression. Earlier generations had experienced sexual constraint as the symbol of a more comprehensive frustration of their capacities; now, a few sops of sexual revolution could placate any more general hunger for social transformation. A better civilisation, Marcuse held, would be ‘genito-fugal’ rather than ‘genito-centric’. In a world designed and run rather than merely staffed by those who did the work, productive activity could (as in William Morris) absorb the psychic energies otherwise confined to sex. Instead, industrial capitalism banned Eros from the workplace and the public sphere, while the utopia of universal play was travestied by a destigmatised pornography. It may sound very wild-eyed today – until one recognises the condition analysed by Marcuse as precisely that described in Houellebecq’s five novels, devoid of any interest except a sexual one. The Great Refusal due industrial capitalism, in Marcuse’s account, might be a fitting title for the terminal phase of Jed Martin’s work and life.

Houellebecq’s world resembles nothing so much as an international airport: a sterilised zone of anonymity, transience and commerce. During one’s brief but tedious layover on earth, work and love are equally out of the question; one’s thoughts then turn to death. Is this a plausible rendition of neoliberal experience? It would be more so if Houellebecq’s fiction weren’t the map of such a small territory. Although the new novel registers, through Jed’s paintings, something of the wide world of globalisation, we are not far here from those remote zones of solipsistic male community, sterile but teeming, marked out in Beckett’s novels or Pessoa’s poetry. The artistic advance of The Map and the Territory is not yet matched by an enlargement of Houellebecq’s sympathies; we don’t yet transcend the choice between alter egos and nonentities. Nor is the leap forward enough to merit the fawning notices the novel has attracted in Europe. Still, by the end of The Map and the Territory it has become unexpectedly stirring to wonder what Michel Houellebecq will do with his afterlife.