Excerpt: Michel Houellebecq's La carte et le territoire

The Excerpt Reader has recently been doing more French than usual.. Not girls, fiction..

First with an up-and-rising French novelist, Stephanie Hochet, now with the french writer and celebrity, the literature francaises's agent provocateur Michel Houellebecq.

Every country should have its own Houellebecq, a bad-boy writer or poète maudit to stir things up and pull the dormant literary (and non-literary) institures out of their habitual slumber.

England has its Martin Amis (and side-kicks Will Self and Nick Hornby, perhaps), the U.S its Bret Easton Ellis (and side-kick Chuck Palahniuk). France has Houellebecq (and side-kick Frederic Beigbeder).

Houellebecq entered the public sphere in 1998, when he published his second novel, Les Particules Elementaires (duly translated as Atomised in English), a manifest-novel of sorts, 'accurately' depicting the thoughts and feelings of the children of the 'lost generation', the ones brought up by 1960's beatnicks and feminists, lost between the declarations and self-absorption chcracterizing the lives their parents led.

The novel won a few international prizes and was translated into dozens of languages worldwide.

Houllebecq took the success in strides, and in 2001 he published a third novel, Platform (between novels, Houellebecq published Lanzarote, a short novella relating one man's typical french Sex & booze vacation on a Spanish island.) 

Platform can be read as Atomised-II of sorts.. The two half-brothers, Michel and Bruno, are all 'grown-up' and fed-up and, in their stupor and indifference they wish to leave this world of offices, supermarkets, nightclubs and psychiatrists and leave on that covoted vacation (the book's main plot is its protagonist's, Michel, parting on a vacation to Thailand..)

Here as well, Houellebecq takes the French vacation as its so commonly represented by the bourgeois cinema and turns it on its head. No more familial gatherings, no more ideal scenery and hidden angoisse - the bourgeois is a monster in-which lurks boredom, violence towards the other and self-deprecation.

But the novel was not only harsh on 'white' institutions. It also criticized and denigrated Islam, so much so that subsequently to its publishing, and following an interview its author gave to the magazine Lire, Houellebecq was brought to trial for provoking racial hatred. He was acquitted, but the criticism and provocations this affair led to in the French media caused a scar in this his cynic heart and Houellebecq left France to live with his wife and his favorite dog, Clément, in a secluded spot in Ireland in 2002. 

Decreed a public enemy and a persona-non-grata, Houellebecq published La possibilité d'une Île(The Possibility of an Island) from 'exile' in 2005. 

The book was received with what might be regarded in retrospect as Harry-Potter-mass-hysteria and was printed and pre-sold to book distributors in France in more than 400,000 copies before it was even published. It was also nominated that year for the pillar of French literary awards, the Goncourt prize.

But the higher you aim, the harder the miss..

Going on and on about a futuristic a cult of clones for almost 500 pages (in the French version) the book dissected the state of current society and there was nothing left of it, and philosophized about the nature of sex and love for endless pages, leaving the average reader dumbfounded. 

The book aimed too high and was subsequently reviled by readers and critiques alike. 

Needless to say, it did not receive the Goncourt prize.. (the prize went to the Belgian writer François Weyergans for his novel, Trois jours chez ma mère (Three days with my mother).

But that's enough of ancient history. Let's talk a little about the present.


The British have their 'yearly' cultural events: the Man Booker Prize; the Turner Prize, the Brit Awards. The Americans have their Emmy's, their Oscar's and Golden Globe award's. The french have their Rentrée littéraire, a period of roughly two months between the end of August and the beginning of November when the majority of the calendar year's important and influential novels will have been published. 

This period is culminated by the distribution of a plethora of literary awards, ranging from the somewhat limiting Prix Femina (handed out, as its name suggests, to women writers only), on to the Prix Médicis, passing through the Prix Renaudot, and finalized by the most prestigious literary award of them all, the Goncourt.

This is how an cultural institutions functions (backward civilizations, pay heed!)

In four days, Houellebecq will publish his fifth novel to date, La carte et le territoire (The Map and the Territory). Although its similar in Gargantuan girth and Balzacian ambitions to Houellebecq's last novel, The possibility of an Island, it is promised nevertheless, perhaps in an effort to appease readers and critics alike, to mark a return to the premisses of Houellebecq's first two novels, Extension du domaine de la lutte (his first) and Particules élémentaires (his second).

The novel's plot (roughly): Jed Martin, (the 'real' one must be pissed at Houellebecq's choice of name..) is a young artist who turns into a celebrated rival to infamous artists such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons after making artworks out of road maps and painting portraits of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, among others. 

At one point in the novel Martin runs into the book's author, Houellebecq, who, jokig at his own expense, is self-portrayed as a smelly, friendless, alcoholic misanthropist who can't wait to settle old scores with the 'media' 

The book ends in the 'future', when France has lost its industry and turned into an agricultural and tourist nation, and the Chinese have replaced the impoverished British in the Dordogne.

Having spoiled my share of the novel for you, I think I'll move right on to the point of this post, namely to present the excerpt from the book to you..

Well, here it is..

The book starts off in a hotel room, somewhere in Dubai or Qatar (again, Islamic states are 'accused' of their wealth, arrogance and hedonistic lifestyle), where world-renowned artists Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst (do they really hang out together?? what kind of fantasy is Houellebecq nurturing here?!) pose for our novel's main protagonist, Jed, for an artistic photo-shoot. 

The setting is artificial, inescapably commercial: "inspired from an advertisement photo, from some German commercial for the Emirates hotel in Abu-Dhabi" (Beigbeder's 99 francs anyone?!)

Hirst is apparently easy to portray. But Koons proves a real problem for Jed, who is doing his best to portray a 'new' Jeff Koons. Exasperted by this impossible task, he gives up all too quickly and laments on the cliche nature of his task: confronted by the inutility of his work, Jed is reluctant to admit that the photographer's job is as futile as that of the automatic Photomaton.

That's it! The excerpt, as you can see for yourself (whether you read French or not..) is rather short.

This is the way it goes with BIG novels. The publishers are reluctant to let any of the 'honey' drip out so they keep it entirely (well, almost) to themselves until it's yours for 99 francs..

As for my VERDICT: DON'T BUY (because it sounds like a bad Platforme & Possibility of an Island combo')


  1. Thank you ! for the saving of 20 euros...
    "La possibilité..." fell from my hands, I never finished it...

  2. You're welcome, PaleCaillou.
    La Possibilite fell from my hands as well, literally ;)

  3. Thankyou for some more expanding of horizons! That's how I like my horizons. I'm thrown by the fact he was prosecuted for badmouthing (badpenning?) Islam...

    And you know, sometimes when people say they are doing girls that's fiction :)

  4. AHA! Loved the girl/fiction analogy. Tx, Lee ;)

  5. It's sounds loke a bad Plateforme and Possibility combo ?
    I agree, the book is less good but it's not at all a combo, where do you read the erotic parts ?
    Houellebecq s'éloigne encore de la vie, tous les personnages sont solitaires par ex et bien d'autres differences.......
    You'll have to read it again !

  6. Shalom, Very cool blog and pretty nice post on Houellebecq! Im curious to see if he will finally get the Goncourt this year.
    I'm a new blogger, please visit my blog to cheer me up: http://literaturebazaaretcompagnie.blogspot.com/

  7. Thank you for the kind words Delphine.
    I hope he doesn't get the Goncourt for this one.. He's on the fast track to boredom and non-relevance these past few years.. I hope he gets back to his earlier writing style pretty soon.

    Otherwise, your blogs looks absolutely fantastic!
    I'll be sure to bookmark it. Tx!!

  8. Thank you, A-Z for your comment; and yes, I agree with you, I hope too that Houellebecq doesn't get the Goncourt for this book.But this year's selection is not very exciting either.

  9. On the positive side I looked forward each time
    to picking up the book. And I finished it! On the negative ``on reste un peu sur sa faim.'' The philosophising is rather weak, ``convenu'' and ``consensuel,'' despite the author's reputation for provocation.

  10. & yet in the end they awarded him the Goncourt.. Qu'est ce que tu en pense??