Why do people drink stiff drinks, despite their taste? Why would anyone inhale smoke?
There's something to be said for the novelist whose stories are unpleasant, but are still read and respected. Like hoppy beers or stronger cigarettes, these sour, acrid tastes come with ulterior purposes. In the case of Michel Houellebecq, his is to draw attention to the decline of Western civilization and the devolution of mankind, pointing at the End like the Ghost of Christmas Future turned French novelist.
Traditionally, his books address isolation: Caucasians in a culturally-diverse Europe; older males hyper-aware of the younger generation; wealthy inheritors boxed in by surging gang violence; shut-ins who buy microwave meals, good cars, and the occasional prostitute. Across four novels we see recurring themes: brief scenes of brutal violence or deep regret, prolonged scenes of explicit carnality or vapid boredom, and harsh satire of every classification of human being. The man pulls no punches, clearly.
Why read him at all? Here at the dawn of 2012, when cruelty is broadcast nonstop worldwide, we need an author who can make it comprehensible. He needn't justify it, make it fun, or make it go away. He need only combine the honesty of language with the open vehicle for our minds provided by fiction. Houellebecq has done just that with The Map and the Territory. The main character is Jed Martin, a painter and photographer whose love life and family life start to shrink while his art is just beginning to get noticed. He's as much an outsider as Houellebecq's other leading men, but we as readers can sympathize with him, follow his journey, and admire his art, despite what Houellebecq describes as his “residue of a social life.”
Where is Houellebecq's typical alter-ego? He's in the novel as … the author himself. Prior to the opening of a new gallery, Jed actually emails Michel Houellebecq for a blurb. Michel uses his character-self to befriend, philosophize with, and eventually write a fifty-page treatise on Jed and his works. More than the quick cameos of Hitchcock in his own films, even more than the deus ex machina of Stephen King appearing in his own Dark Tower series, Michel Houellebecq displays boldness in his going above and beyond the self-parodic call of duty.
The passing on of narrative authority reveals the novel's greatest triumph: subtlety. Gone are the days of detailed sexual acts, gory news reports, and caustic racial comments. The satire is still here but it's hidden – everything is described in lighter shades, gentler adjectives, fewer proper nouns. Jed's old lover, Olga, invites him to an exclusive party: “It would give me great pleasure if you came.” In his other novels this sentence would be dirty by necessity, but here it can show an incredibly tender loneliness.
Of all his books, The Map and the Territory is a masterful blend of craft and message. The perspective is original, the language is captivating. Houellebecq does not garnish a thing, neither what he has to say nor especially how he says it. He sets the facts before us, unadorned but brilliantly arranged much like the maps in Jed's gallery, and demands our attention. For all his apathy and intensity, he still has an honest, compelling view of the world. And he may not be wrong. After all, some bitters take the form of recreational drinks and drugs, while others manifest as crucial medicines and the sober responsibility that comes with them.