French novelist and public provocateur Michel Houellebecq is out to darken the mood and make us laugh uncomfortably at ourselves once again with his newest novel, “The Map and the Territory.” Or is he?
Houellebecq is known for his grim, satirical depictions of aging in hyper-commercial, sex-obsessed Western society. This time around, however, rather than driving himself to destruction as so many of his protagonists do, his hero’s isolation and doomed sexuality are overcome by a steely dedication to creative work.
Because the trademarks of his public persona, “reclusiveness, drunkenness, depression, and indifferent personal hygiene,” are so frequently confirmed by his appearances in the press, and because his public remarks bear such close resemblance to the views of his protagonists, few critics can resist the temptation to attribute the thrust of Houellebecq’s novels to the psychosocial development of their author. Given that he writes himself into this latest outing, Houellebecq probably doesn’t mind. —ARK
Elaine Blair in The New York Review of Books:
The Map and the Territory, like Jed’s life, is organized around his work rather than his love affairs. Jed might go out with an interesting woman when she crosses his path, he might hire a prostitute here and there, but sex is not a big deal, and love, though it still matters, is not the most important part of his life. “The last remaining myth of Western civilization was that sex was something to do; something expedient, a diversion,” writes Houellebecq in The Elementary Particles. His earlier books were taken up with that myth and its ruinous effect on the characters’ lives. The new book actually gives sex the diminished place that it deserves, according to Houellebecq’s logic. In this way there is something idealistic in the structure of the book: it offers an example of the right way to apportion work and sex in one’s life. There is an ideal expressed in the narrative tone as well: in distinction from the earlier novels, it is calm. And Jed himself is also a kind of idealized figure. His life offers an answer to the question that the other books have been pregnant with: If you are a Houellebecqian character, how, and why, should you live?