- Maps and Territories: Global Positioning in the Contemporary French Novel by Joshua Armstrong
France is changing. With the rising specter of globalization and deindustrialization, the appearance of gilets jaunes on roundabouts, the spread of misinformation through social media, and domestic terrorist attacks becoming more common, it is no surprise that contemporary authors have reacted to this shifting world. Joshua Armstrong’s Maps and Territories provides insightful examples of how the French view their own sense of belonging within the dynamics of new territories and realities. Throughout Maps and Territories, protagonists react to globalization from the point of view of the socially, politically, and geographically marginalized, and, in doing so, they challenge notions of space and belonging. To help guide us, Armstrong engages postmodern theorists, including Marc Augé, Bruno Latour, and David Harvey, to situate the contemporary French novel in the nation’s current debate on globalization.
In Armstrong’s first section we see the role of corporate power. He discusses Michel Houellebecq’s La carte et le territoire (2010), which seems like an obvious starting point given the novel’s title. In it, Jed Martin manipulates Michelin road maps. This medium allows him to reimagine the way he presents the city, the society, and the world. His prominence allows him to interact with television executives who hope to create the Michelin TV channel. The novel pairs well with Chloé Delaume’s J’habite dans la télévision (2006), where TF1 executives push a telecommunications-driven French culture. Other reflections of corporate overreach in Armstrong’s book include megalomaniacs and murky corporate power in a concrete-saturated China in Lydie Salvayre’s Portrait de l’écrivain en animal domestique (2007) and a Manhattan skyscraper in Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Fuir (2009), locations that project exponential growth and forces of power that play out. In later sections, Armstrong focuses on growing economic anxiety and people who operate on the edges of society (and are subsequently gone from the map), as France transitions from an industrial to a postindustrial society. In Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex trilogy (2015–17), Despentes’ middle-class main character loses his job and becomes homeless. In the past, such people may have looked to the radical left for inspiration, but in France today, they now turn to the extreme right. Philippe Vasset’s protagonist in La conjuration (2013) seeks out and identifies blank spaces on the Institut géographique national (IGN) 2314 OT [End Page 171] map of Paris. Once he pushes beyond physical barriers meant to keep people out, he finds that those cartographic “blank zones” have a life of their own.
Throughout his text, Armstrong identifies protagonists who renegotiate their relationship to both space and place and offers new perspectives from a diverse set of authors. However, one might argue that including texts that highlight both maps and territory more prominently, such as Aurélien Bellanger’s L’aménagement du territoire (2014) or Le grand Paris (2017), would also interest readers on this topic. Overall, Armstrong’s Maps and Territories is extremely useful for scholars of contemporary French novels. His clear prose and thoughtful commentary help explain the unease that a changing postwar France experiences today. Thanks to Armstrong’s thoughtful analysis, we better understand pressures facing an ever-increasing urbanized society in France and the world. [End Page 172]