The Map and the Territory
Translated by Gavin Bowd
Knopf, $26.95, 288 pp.
It’s perhaps easiest to introduce Michel Houellebecq, the controversial French writer whose new novel The Map and the Territory recently won the prestigious Prix Goncourt, by offering a couple of representative quotations from his previous work. Here is one, taken from his first novel, Whatever: “I don’t like this world. I definitely don’t like it. The society in which I live disgusts me; advertising sickens me; computers make me puke” (this coming from a computer programmer). Here is another, from The Elementary Particles: “Sexual desire is preoccupied with youth, and the progressive influx of ever-younger girls onto the field of seduction was simply a return to the norm; a restoration of the true nature of desire, comparable to the return of stock prices.” And here is another, from the same novel: “All in all, nature deserved to be wiped out in a holocaust—and man’s mission on earth was probably to do just that.”
These passages aren’t extreme by Houellebecq’s standards; I haven’t included any of his passionless, pornographic sex scenes, for instance, or his characters’ regular Islamophobic asides. Life in a Houellebecq novel is short, nasty, and brutish, not to mention misogynistic and vile. His characters are materialists who hate their material embodiment; they see sex as both the only pleasure worth pursuing and a pursuit that leads less to pleasure than to hatred of self and other; they...