Map Quest: Sex Gives Way to Self-Reflexivity in Michel Houellebecq’s New Novel

The name of the novelist Michel Houellebecq, with its little landslide of vowels, is less known in the United States

The name of the novelist Michel Houellebecq, with its little landslide of vowels, is less known in the United States than it is in France, his country of birth. But there, Mr. Houellebecq is a brand. Or at least he is an act. “I am about as ill-adapted as it is possible to be for a public role,” Mr. Houellebecq has written, and so, of course, he is a vivid public figure. Known for his attested habit of abruptly 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, Mr. Houellebecq was sued, and subsequently acquitted, for incitement of religious hatred, after calling Islam “the stupidest religion” in an interview. 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.

Mr. Houellebecq’s first novel, Whatever (1994), followed several months in the life of an agricultural computer programmer. Little happens. Perhaps four things almost happen. (“Anything can happen in life,” Mr. Houellebecq has written, “especially nothing.”) There is an abortive attempt at murder, and an abortive attempt at self-castration; there is even an abortive attempt at finding a car the protagonist parked down a side street a few hours earlier. But he gives up the search after a few minutes, and decides to report the vehicle as stolen. “I’ve lived so little I tend to imagine I’m not going to die,” he thinks. 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 Mr. 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 und Isolde” of sex tourism, and The Possibility of an Island (2005), a dystopian meditation on bodily decay. At one point in Island, Daniel, the protagonist, is grieved to realize that his long-standing girlfriend “preferred that I take her from behind,” which he melancholically attributes to “an inclination of the vagina or something.” Less sensitive readers might consider this a quirk love could survive, but it takes Daniel a mere pensive paragraph to go from there to the certitude that the relationship is doomed: “We would never know that infinitely double look of the couple united in happiness, humbly accepting the presence of organs, and limited joy; we would never truly be lovers.”

From “an inclination of the vagina,” to “the infinitely double look”; from the anatomical to the maudlin. One of the paradoxes of the Houellebecqian world view is that it is as sentimental in its principles as it is brutal in its particulars. “Maybe, like [H.P.] Lovecraft, all I have ever written are materialist horror stories,” he wrote. Swingers’ clubs have never known such an exalted literary champion. Yet Mr. Houellebecq has also written this: “Love as a kind of innocence and as a capacity for illusion, as an aptitude for epitomizing the whole of the other sex in a single loved being rarely resists a year of sexual immorality, and never two.”

There is something adolescent about this zero-sum vision, in which the world, held to high standards, is deemed hopelessly base for not meeting them. Mr. Houellebecq has acknowledged as much. “Adolescence is not only an important period in life,” he has written, “it is the only period where one may speak of life in the full sense of the word.” But if the bitter pill of adulthood must be swallowed—well, then, why not down the whole bottle? Mr. Houellebecq is a kind of laureate of the tantrum, a writer whose body of work enacts a systematic overreaction to the letdowns of life after 14. It makes for a style of blunt contrasts, which can shift within a paragraph from helpful tips on the art of the hand job to an aperçu about Pascal. This author is an exponent of Thai prostitutes whose adverb of choice is “gently.”

Mr. Houellebecq’s new, Prix Goncourt-winning book, The Map and the Territory, 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: what Kingsley Amis, in response to his son Martin’s 1984 novel Money, called “buggering about with the reader.” For this novel by Michel Houellebecq also features a character called Michel Houellebecq, who shares Mr. Houellebecq’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 Mr. Houellebecq is tartly alert to. Some of the jokes are inscrutable to an Anglophone. But not all. On learning the value of one of his paintings, Jed thinks, “Seven hundred and fifty thousand euros …: that made no sense. Picasso made no sense, either; even less, probably, if you could establish a grading in senselessness.” He has already met a man at an opening “who had spent three hours trying to dress artistically.”

There are two types of male character in Mr. 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, a shrinking, shrugging type who accidentally embodies a paradigm of cool. “Floating among the others with polite disinterest,” Mr. 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, which “some have not hesitated to describe as demonic.” When eventually 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 monstrous murder. Though it would be bad form to give more away, much of this section feels like bad form itself—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. Mr. Houellebecq is an agile theorist, but not an ingenious one; the sections in which these themes are explicitly handled retain our interest while seeming a little stale. The need for an “artisanal” union of “design and execution” has already been expressed in Marx, and at Whole Foods.

But perhaps it is stale on purpose; perhaps staleness is “the flavor of authenticity.” “[Jed] sometimes had the hypermarket all to himself,” the author writes—“which seemed to be quite a good approximation of happiness.” Mr. Houellebecq’s characters are depressives who are most depressing when their depression lifts, and they savor the humiliating smallness of their lives. No writer better conveys the shrinkability of human expectations. “Reading the owner’s manual of a Mercedes remains a real pleasure,” Jed thinks. He later rejoices at the addition to his local grocery of “a magnificent, brand-new self-service salad bar.” “I wasn’t completely happy in all aspects of life,” says the character Houellebecq, “but at least I had that: I could, at regular intervals, buy my favorite boots.” Is it a matter of wonder, or of horror, that an adult male should be appeased by a pair of boots? Or even by a work of art? Mr. Houellebecq is an imperfect novelist, but he is childish like a great novelist; he reminds us of the consolatory nature of adult life. “I’ll look at it sometimes,” says Houellebecq of the portrait Jed does of him. “It’ll remind me I had an intense life—sometimes.”

Map Quest: Sex Gives Way to Self-Reflexivity in Michel Houellebecq’s New Novel