Funny and furious
After the disappointment of his last book, The Possibility of an Island, Michel Houellebecq – called, among other things, “France’s greatest literary export” – returns to his audacious, sardonic self in his new novel, The Map and the Territory.
While a lot is made of Houellebecq’s nihilism and despair (Elementary Particles, Platform and Atomised: if you haven’t read them, you could do worse than to place the orders online now) as well as the sledgehammer force of his satire, it is often overlooked how genuinely funny he can be.
The new novel – mordant, full of postmodern high jinks and absorbing – is often really very funny. It is also plotted very well and carefully, turning into a literary whodunit in its final third.
At one level, it deals with art and the attempt of art to represent the world. At another, it is a meditation on chance and luck and the random nature of artistic success and fame.
Houellebecq creates a character called Houellebecq, who shares with the author many things, including his backlist. Creating this Roth-like teasing interplay between life and fiction allows Houellebecq (the author) to have a terrific time, playing games with the notion of authorial identity.
The Map and the Territory is far less explicit in terms of sex than Houellebecq in his prime. It is also, compared to his three best novels (mentioned above) more humane and forgiving. The next novel will tell us whether this one signals a new direction in Houellebecq’s writing.
Here is a superb (and very typical) Houellebecq interview , from the Paris Review.
And here is a magnificent analysis of Houellebecq by one of my most favourite writers, Julian Barnes , from the New Yorker.