Death by Self-Parody
Giving his critics what they want, Michel Houellebecq kills off a character named Michel Houellebecq
The Map and the Territory
by Michel Houellebecq
translation by Gavin Bowd
$26.95 List Price
As befits a well-practiced and much-lauded controversialist, Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Map and the Territory first incited a mini-hubbub over plagiarism upon its publication last year in France, then went on to win the Prix Goncourt. The lifted sections (as Houellebecq readily acknowledged) were from Wikipedia: long swaths of unremarkable factoids about things you’re probably not interested in reading about, like houseflies. If you find the whole pomo-pastiche thing a little tedious, there are other pleasures to be had, since a depressed, dyspeptic, and controversial writer named Michel Houellebecq gets gruesomely murdered in the second half of the book. The disquisition on houseflies comes into play because the body is in a state of advanced decomposition by the time it’s discovered. Extremely advanced.
What his killer does to the semifictionalized novelist, Houellebecq himself does here to the realist novel: namely, shred it to bits. As for the murder, I’m not giving anything away (besides, Roland Barthes gave it away first, in “The Death of the Author”): Plot is not exactly an imperative element in TMATT. Nor are characters—the protagonist, an artist named Jed Martin, is halfheartedly rendered at best. Genre is treated pretty haphazardly, too—following the murder, what had been a mild satire of the art world transforms itself into a somewhat enervated policier. (At least I think the art world’s being satirized, since Houellebecq puts quotation marks around phrases like “working breakfast” and mocks the prices of gallery art.) None of this matters because this is a
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