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Sex gives way to self-reflexivity in Michel Houellebecq’s new novel

Novelist Michel Houellebecq is less known in the United States than he is in France, his country of birth. There, Houellebecq is a vivid public figure. Known for coming on to his female interviewers, he is also an epic smoker, an espouser of Sarkozy and a recluse. His surliness is a matter of public record. In 2002, Houellebecq was sued, and acquitted, for incitement of religious hatred, after calling Islam “the stupidest religion.” His mother wrote a whole book maligning him. The book is called L’Innocente. “It’s pretty scary that the old cow found a publisher,” the son responded in a book of his own.

Houellebecq’s first novel, Whatever (1994), followed the life of an agricultural computer programmer. Little happens. Whatever is a book about the tyranny of dreariness. It contains no proper sex scenes, but in their absence exudes a heavy atmosphere of lust gone sour. This atmosphere recurs in Houellebecq’s second novel, The Elementary Particles (1998). “I met Anne in 1981,” says Bruno, a main character. “She wasn’t really beautiful, but I was tired of jacking off.” This book contains proper sex scenes. So do the author’s later novels: Platform (2001), a sort “Tristan and Isolde” of sex tourism, and The Possibility of an Island (2005), a dystopian meditation on bodily decay.

Houellebecq’s new, Prix Goncourt-winning book, The Map and the Territory (Knopf, $27), is a rather mild offering by Houellebecqian standards. There is less sex and heresy than in any of the novels since Whatever. Instead, there are liberties of a different order: For this novel by Michel Houellebecq also features a character called Michel Houellebecq, who shares the author’s résumé and persona. He will play a pungent supporting role in the proceedings. “He stank a little, but less than a corpse,” the hero thinks on meeting the author, who “looked like a sick old turtle.”

The hero is Jed Martin, an artist living in Paris who becomes famous, “singled out … by the law of supply and demand.” The novel is thus intimately preoccupied with the peculiarities of artistic stardom in a French milieu—and with the art market, a realm whose incongruities of innocence and cynicism Houellebecq is tartly alert to. Some of the jokes are inscrutable to an Anglophone. But not all.

There are two types of male character in Houellebecq’s fiction: the sex-starved loser, who goes through life stockpiling Viagra and signing up for singles’ retreats; and the asexual savant, who cruises on a wave of inborn ability toward some world-historical destiny. One can’t find his way into adult life. The other can’t get far enough away from it. Both, for different reasons, tend to go home alone. Jed is a savant who accidentally embodies a paradigm of cool. “Floating among the others with polite disinterest,” Houellebecq writes, “Jed adopted, without knowing it, the groovy attitude that had made Andy Warhol successful in his time.”

As with most novels about the fine arts, the fine art itself is slightly nonplussing. Jed first breaks through with an exhibition of his photographs of Michelin maps of France, from which the novel takes its title: “THE MAP IS MORE INTERESTING THAN THE TERRITORY.”

Jed then abandons photography, showing nothing for a decade while his aura matures; it is a spiritual decision that nonetheless has the force and appearance of a strategy of self-promotion. As an art student, Jed had encyclopedically photographed manufactured objects. Now “he [became] interested, during the second half of his life, in their producers.” Jed starts painting, and undertakes a set of portraits titled the “Series of Simple Professions”; Houellebecq agrees to write a preface for their catalog. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology is generally judged Jed’s best, but he also does a Baconesque likeness of Houellebecq in a blur of fury. When the work is exhibited, it is a sensation—but of course Jed, with his allergy to acclaim, will not enjoy it.

The final portion of the novel is given over to the investigation of a murder. It’s a dark, dragging prank anchored to a book that didn’t need it. It is presumably a further, queasy experiment in the book’s controlling idea, juxtaposition. “I think I’ve more or less finished with the world as narrative,” says the character Houellebecq. “I’m now only interested in the world as juxtaposition.” Juxtapositions structure the book, as territory squares off against map, work against value, author against avatar. Houellebecq is an agile theorist, but not an ingenious one; the sections in which these themes are explicitly handled retain our interest while seeming stale. The need for an “artisanal” union of “design and execution” has already been expressed in Marx, and at Whole Foods.

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