- La carte et le territoire
La carte et le territoire, winner of the 2010 Prix Goncourt and Michel Houellebecq's first novel since La possibilité d'une île in 2005, may be the author's most compelling work to date. Houellebecq has built a reputation on his ability to provoke, and the consistent polemic, in both the French and American media, that the publication of his novels has caused in previous years has established the author as one of the world's leading literary enfants terribles. This latest novel is, however, something of a departure from the past: virtually absent from La carte et le territoire are the sorts of incendiary rants against Islam and sexual liberalism that fueled the affaires Houellebecq of 1998 and 2001; absent too is the outlandish talk of post-human utopia, cloning cults, and genetic engineering. Houellebecq, now in his fifties, is content in this most recent effort to tell the story of Jed Martin, a painter and photographer whose "trade portraits"—images of bartenders, businessmen, artists, and other professionals at work—catapult him to multi-million euro stardom in the waning years of industrial French and European civilization.
Like most Houellebecquian protagonists, Martin is a misanthrope and a loner. He sees his ailing father once a year, never marries, and lives out the last twenty years of his life isolated on a sprawling estate in La Creuse, where he spends most of his time videotaping plants. During the course of the novel, Martin meets the fictional Michel Houellebecq—whom the real Houellebecq, in an effort to outdo his haters in the French media, describes in the most unflattering terms—and the two collaborate on Martin's series of trade portraits. Halfway through the narrative, Houellebecq the character is gruesomely murdered by an assassin who uses his victim's entrails to create a crude and bloody Jackson Pollock imitation on the author's living room carpet. Martin is troubled by the murder but, of course, not excessively troubled, and he ends his artistic career (and life) superimposing accelerated video-footage of deteriorating human figurines and cityscapes onto a background of wind-blown flora. The image of humanity and its creations disappearing into an eternal backdrop of plants disturbs Martin's admirers and, more generally, provides another classically Houellebecquian commentary on the fleetingness of human life. Houellebecq is unsparing in his grimness: on the last page of the novel, we read "Le triomphe de la végétation est totale."
What perhaps distinguighes La carte et le territoire most from previous novels is that Houellebecq, once so contemptuous and condemning of Islam, capitalism, the sexual revolution, and all the myriad ills of Western modernity, appears in this fifth book to have reined in (at least somewhat) his rancor. Houellebecq has never been what the French call an intellectuel [End Page 142] engagé—engaged intellectualism in France has always been tied to the revolutionary spirit, and in Houellebecq's generation we are a long way from such an ethos. But in the past he could at least be counted on to gripe: gripe about sexual inequality, about social atomization and consumerism, about crime in the banlieues, etc. What has changed? Essentially, in La carte et le territoire, Houellebecq has put to bed the utopian fantasies he entertained in previous novels, especially the religious discourse that underlies his two most prophetic and philosophical works, Les particules élémentaires and La possibilité d'une île.
Though virtually no scholar has yet addressed the question of religious decline in Houellebecq's work, the author's novels are in large part a series of devastating indictments of the materialist worldview that has spread throughout Western civilization since the beginning of the modern period. Following in the footsteps of his maître-a-penser Auguste Comte, Houellebecq both questions the prospects of a civilization that is absolutely cut off from religion and toys with solutions to existential malaise that include a spiritual clause. Unfortunately, the kinds of remedies Houellebecq offers for the putative spiritual decline of the West—in particular, immortality through cloning and machine-mind...