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The Map, the Territory, and the Airport Lounge

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by Jeremy Fernando

One of life’s great ironies is that Michel Houellebecq’s works are found in most airport bookstores. After all, he is a writer that takes the late, great, media theorist Friedrich Kittler’s claim—we don’t use technology, machines are not extensions of us; rather we are plugged into them—to its extreme. (Kittler once quipped that air travel is made tolerable by ensuring that “all your orifices are plugged in” so you become part of the plane.) Suffice to say, neither Kittler nor Houellebecq will be in any airline ad anytime soon.

But then again, the man has won the Prix Goncourt. Which in itself might be a reason to pick up The Map and The Territory from said bookstore; and make sure you put it on display whilst awaiting your flight. Just don’t expect to hit it off with the person next to you: Not because she might not have read him, but precisely if she did. After all, the man is a known misogynist. And has heart-warming quips like: “What can you reply, in general, to human questions?” (p. 44). Hardly surprisingly when his oeuvre is captured beautifully by: “First of all, I studied geography. Then I turned towards human geography. And now I am exclusively into the humans. Well if you can call them human beings.” (p. 46) His one moment of backhanded sympathy (when the protagonist, Jed, and his girlfriend break up) comes, in an airport during a rare peaceful moment: “It was, however, tempting to see in it a homage, a discreet homage from the social machinery to their love which had been so quickly interrupted.” (p. 66)


Michel Houellebecq (in Warsaw 2008; original photo: Mariusz Kubik, reproduced with permission)

Though if you are now tempted to abandon Houellebecq, you would be making a grave mistake. For, he teaches us: art is the “production of representations of the world, in which people were never meant to live.” (p. 19) One should recall here – and one gives nothing away by mentioning this – that there is a character named Michel Houellebecq in the novel. This, the author, never lets us forget. In fact, he plays with us, calling the Houellebecq of the novel a genius, a brilliant writer; echoing episodes from his life that anyone familiar with him would know – thus, foregrounding the status of The Map and The Territory as a novel. Or, perhaps the novel never lets us forget that episodes in his life are but tales, disarming us so that he can call himself a genius. Then reminding us: “Disarming smile is an expression you still encounter in certain novels, and therefore must correspond to some kind of reality.” (p. 106)

(At this point, if you want to impress said fellow passenger, comment to her that in this novel Houellebecq echoes Jorge Luis Borges’ short tale On Exactitude in Science which is itself an echo of Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded.)

The echoes are no accident. By resounding the worlds of art, literature, architecture, celebrities (most of the characters in the novel are recognisable public figures), but remixing them in a different register, through filters (photography is key too), the text is doing nothing other than reminding us to look again.

To review. Not only what a novel is. Or how it is written: “you can always take notes … and try to string together sentences; but to launch yourself into the writing of a novel you have to wait for all of that to become compact and irrefutable. You have to wait for the appearance of an authentic core of necessity. You never decide to write a novel … a book … was like a block of concrete that had decided to set, and the author’s freedom was limited to the fact of being there, and of waiting, in frightened inaction, for the process to start by itself.” (p. 166) Or even how you are going to read it – knowing that it has been constructed for you. But more pertinently, how it is going to be reviewed: “to have some reviews isn’t enough, you need to produce some kind of theoretical discourse. And I’m completely incapable of doing that; so are you.” (p. 102) For, the novel is not the world; neither is the world the novel. It is only the “theoretical discourse” – the review – that will write that link into being. So, even as I write this review, even as you read this review, one should never forget to re-look, re-read. See again. Speak with the novel one more time.

And it is perhaps in discourse that the hidden optimism of Houellebecq can be glimpsed. Even as his characters – even the Houellebecq within – proclaim that all conversation is pointless, all human relationship is meaningless, doomed to nothingness (at points, he’d make Sartre blush) they do nothing but talk. Attempt to connect. Despite everything. Not because words themselves will do anything: but because it is only in conversation that you can have moments of silence. Not an absolute silence; but a silence between, a shared silence. One that allows you to grasp what the other is. But if you miss it, all you’d be left with is “the correct sensation that something could have happened, that you just simply showed yourself unworthy of this gift you had been offered.” (p. 164)

Michel Houellebecq: The Map and the Territory
Translated by Gavin Bowd
William Heinemann, London 2011.
ISBN-13: 9780434021406
Hardcover, 304 pages, GBP 17.99

Jeremy Fernando is the Jean Baudrillard Fellow at The European Graduate School and a Fellow of Tembusu College. He is the author of five books—amongst them The Suicide Bomber; and her gift of death (Atropos Press, New York/Dresden 2010). He finds a strange hope in the fact that despite Houellebecq’s pessimism, they spent half an hour ruminating on semi-colons; over lunch in Saas Fee, Switzerland.

A modified version of this review was first published in Prestige, Singapore, January 2012. The author would like to dedicate this essay to the memory of Friedrich A. Kittler (1943-2011).