Excuse me, but would you prefer the window seat …
This piece is for, and in loving memory of, Friedrich A. Kittler (1943–2011)
One of life’s great ironies is that Michel Houellebecq’s works are found in most airport bookstores. After all, he is a writer that takes the late, great, media theorist Friedrich Kittler’s claim — we don’t use technology, machines are not extensions of us; rather we are plugged into them — to its extreme. (Kittler once quipped that air travel is made tolerable by ensuring that « all your orifices are plugged in » not just so you are distracted from the fact that you’re in a flying hunk of metal, but more radically, you become part of the plane.)
Suffice to say, neither Kittler nor Houellebecq will be in any airline ad anytime soon.
But then again, the man has won the Prix Goncourt. Which, in itself, might be a reason to pick up The Map and The Territory from said bookstore; and make sure you put it on display whilst awaiting your flight.
Just don’t expect to hit it off with the person next to you: not because they might not have read him, but precisely if they did.
After all, the man is a known misanthrope.
And has heart-warming quips like: « What can you reply, in general, to human questions? » (44). Hardly surprising when his oeuvre is captured beautifully by: « first of all, I studied geography. Then I turned towards human geography. And now I am exclusively into the humans. Well if you can call them human beings » (46). His one moment of backhanded sympathy (when the protagonist, Jed, and his girlfriend break up) comes, in an airport during a rare peaceful moment: « It was, however, tempting to see in it a homage, a discreet homage from the social machinery to their love which had been so quickly interrupted » (66).
Though if you are now tempted to abandon Houellebecq, you would be making a grave mistake. For, he teaches us: art is the « production of representations of the world, in which people were never meant to live » (19). One should recall here — and I am giving nothing away by mentioning this — that there is a character named Michel Houellebecq in the novel. This, he (as in the one who signs off on the novel), never lets us forget. In fact, he plays with us, calling the Houellebecq of the novel a genius, a brilliant writer; echoing episodes from his life that anyone familiar with him would know — thus, foregrounding the status of The Map and The Territory as a novel. Or, perhaps the novel never lets us forget that episodes in his life are but tales, disarming us so that he can call himself a genius. Then reminding us: a « disarming smile is an expression you still encounter in certain novels, and therefore must correspond to some kind of reality » (106).
(At this point, if you want to impress said fellow passenger, comment to them that in this novel Houellebecq echoes Jorge Luis Borges’ short tale On Exactitude in Science which is itself an echo of Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded.)
The echoes, though, are no accident. Far from it.
By resounding the worlds of art, literature, architecture, celebrities (most of the characters in the novel are recognisable public figures) — but remixing them in a different register, through filters (photography is key too) — the text is doing nothing other than reminding us to look again.
Not only what a novel is.
Or how it is written: « you can always take notes … and try to string together sentences; but to launch yourself into the writing of a novel you have to wait for all of that to become compact and irrefutable. You have to wait for the appearance of an authentic core of necessity. You never decide to write a novel … a book … was like a block of concrete that had decided to set, and the author’s freedom was limited to the fact of being there, and of waiting, in frightened inaction, for the process to start by itself » (166).
Or even how you are going to read it — knowing that it has been constructed for you.
But more pertinently, how it is going to be reviewed: « to have some reviews isn’t enough, you need to produce some kind of theoretical discourse. And I’m completely incapable of doing that; so are you » (102). For, the novel is not the world; neither is the world the novel. It is only the « theoretical discourse » — the review — that will write that link into being.
So, even as I write this review, even as you read this review, one should never forget to re-look, re-read.
Speak with the novel one more time.
And it is perhaps in discourse that the hidden optimism of Houellebecq can be glimpsed. For, even as his characters — including the Houellebecq within — proclaim that all conversation is pointless, all human relationship is meaningless, doomed to nothingness (at points, he’d make Sartre blush) they do nothing but talk.
Attempt to connect. Despite everything.
Not because words themselves will do anything: but because it is only in conversation that you can have moments of silence. Not an absolute silence; but a silence between, a shared silence.
One that allows you to momentarily have a glimpse of what the other might be: which has nothing to do with knowing, even less so of comprehension (which is nothing under than bring under one’s grasp).
But of feel. Of the possibility of touch.
And if you miss it, all you’d be left with is « the correct sensation that something could have happened, that you just simply showed yourself unworthy of this gift you had been offered » (164).