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 Michel Houellebecq: Thin-skinned provocateur

You might find a lot that's familiar in Michel Houellebecq's new novel, La carte et le territoire (The Map and the Territory) if you've read his previous work, but it's unlikely that you'd guess how this new novel ends. Houellebecq is a talented writer, but his novels have a tendency to sag, particularly towards the end. Houellebecq seems to become bored with his characters or simply indulges his taste for walkabout, with diatribes or disquisitions on history or the world economy. There is always a would-be statistician or sociologist lurking in Houellebecq, waiting to pounce.

We get all sorts of reflections and rambling in La carte et le territoire (there are two pages on Jean-Louis Curtis, for example, Prix Goncourt 1947, a writer Houellebecq feels is underrated) but I'd contend that this is, technically, his best novel and the strongest since his first, breakthrough book, Whatever — let's not forget its fantastically uncatchy title in French, Extension du domaine de la lutte (Extension of the Domain of Struggle).

Although La carte has the usual Houellebecqian traits, unhappiness and prostitutes, it is in many ways a typical, Balzacian 19th-century novel. A young man, an artist, Jed Martin, goes to Paris, falls under the spell of a powerful woman, in this case a superhot Russian publicist, works seriously and with her support conquers first Paris, and then the international art world. However, as it is a Houellebecq novel, the success doesn't work in the way Balzac would have wanted.

La carte et le territoire is Houellebecq's foray into the art world and it's clear that he is jealous of the absurd amounts of money the big-name artists can generate. Yet it's also clear that Houellebecq could have made it as an artist. Jed Martin gains widespread acclaim by photographing Michelin maps of France and displaying the results, hence the title of the book. The skill with which Houellebecq describes Jed's ideas and work leaves you in no doubt that the author could have easily conned his way to prominence in art. Like his idol, Baudelaire, Houellebecq has considerable flair for writing about the visual.

The novel is also a fresh tranche de vie of Parisian high life or "les people" as celebrities and magnates are now known. But this is not a roman à clef. These aren't "thinly-veiled" portraits of Parisian potentates; Houellebecq peoples his novel with...real people. The opening page has Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst and then we get a procession of French players: Julien Lepers, Frédéric Beigbeder and Michel Houellebecq himself. 

Many writers have put themselves in their work of fiction (and it goes back some way, Molière did it in L'impromptu de Versailles) but I can't think of an example where the author fictionalising or cloning himself has amounted to more than a walk-on part. In La carte et le territoire Houellebecq 2 (as I shall call the character to avoid confusion with the author) almost becomes the central figure of the book. It gives Houellebecq a nice running gag as various characters remark: "Houellebecq? The writer? He's not bad, you know."

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