Why you should read: The Map and the Territory

Michael Kearney drinks in the multifaceted cartography of Michel Houellebecq’s making (you have to let your brain absorb all of the elements of the parenthetical setting in one go).

Michel Houellebecq The Map and the Territory_

By What Hodological Map Should I Read This?

I was reading Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory in a pub called the Lighthouse in Kokubunji Japan (It is a great bar owned by a Dutch-English brother and sister, Duncan and Hana. Their father, David Sculpher, was an English artist who specialized in miniature replications, or as he called them “Time Pieces:” he began working as an apprentice stage hand at thirteen, around 1945. By eighteen, he had become the stage and lighting manager. After serving the crown for a few years in Hong Kong and Malaysia, he returned to London and had positions with the Royal Opera House, the Royal Ballet, and the Royal Shakespeare Company, getting a chance to work with Chaplin and Olivier. After a long career in London, he worked in Qatar for eight years; then he went to Amsterdam in 1988, his three children were living there, where his work on miniatures became more prevalent: he always produced miniatures of the sets he was designing before actually constructing them in full. Two of these miniatures, The Grapes and one of a shop and street in Dickensian London, are in the Lighthouse; they are amazing works depicting with great detail a dark and decaying London. I don’t know what Hana and Duncan’s Dutch mother did, it seems she worked at many things, usually things that interested her. Anyway it is a marvelous pub: great selection of stouts, beers, and ales, both draft and bottled, the draft London Pride is my usual choice, excellent and rare in Tokyo. The Lighthouse also has a great pub menu with an assortment of meat pie sets, which include chips, salad, and gravy, another rarity in Japan, never mind that meat pies are extremely scarce, German sausage, and my favorite – homemade Dutch meatballs. Plus, this pub is a friendly place: everyone is welcoming in that if you want to chat, great; if you want to read and be left alone, great: your own space in a shared place), when an Irish friend of mine came in.

I had been struggling with getting into the book, which happens sometimes – could be the author’s fault, or it could be their intention, or it could be a problem with the translator, or it could be something about the reader: not sure with this book yet, I do not have enough data from other readers. However, I pressed on, as one does in life, and the book, or I, started to pick-up; then I hit the following passage of the Houellebecq character in the book talking to the main character, Jed Martin, about living in Ireland:

December; night falls at four o’clock. Then I can put on my pyjamas, take some sleeping pills and go to bed with a bottle of wine and a book. … The sun rises at nine; well, with the time it takes to wash and have some coffee, it’s almost midday, so there are four hours left for me to hold out, and most of the time I manage without too much pain. But in spring it’s unbearable. The sunsets are endless and magnificent, it’s like some kind of fucking opera (92-93)

This occurrence, of having difficulty getting into the book, reminded me of what my PhD supervisor, Dr. Brian Coates, advised me when I was about to read Nostromo: “Get through the first ninety pages in one sitting, don’t put the book down [I unfortunately had done this with The Map and the Territory: a problem of living in Tokyo and having to read on trains], if you do, you will never really be able to get deeply into it: you have to let your brain absorb all of the elements of Sulaco in one go.” With the first ninety pages of Nostromo, Conrad created an organic history of Sulaco. He does this through a Heideggerian presence: a presence existing through its past and its future. The past, before, and the future, ahead, act together to form the presence of being. Once the reader has gotten through the first ninety pages, they will have formed a hodological map of the world Conrad created; then she or he will be able to navigate the complex story of Nostromo. Thus, in regard to Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory, by the end of the passage cited above, I had, or perhaps the book had, formulated a hodological reading path.

My Irish friend was a bit down when he entered the Lighthouse, so I showed him the passage, figuring that being Irish, he would get and enjoy this take on the Irish spring evenings. He read the passage quickly, closed the book and said, “Houellebecq is crap.” I queried for some literary clarification of his position, which was not out of order since he is a journalist, so he is well acquainted, I assumed, with the writing arts; his response was, “He’s crap.” I don’t like to quibble, especially in pubs, and especially regarding opinions, or beliefs, which are really only opinions, in my opinion, so I enquired after how his wife and children were doing. They were fine.

Looking for another take on The Map and the Territory, how can one trust oneself in accessing things in this day and age with all of the cultural programming going on, I asked my Japanese colleague’s opinion of The Map and the Territory. She said she liked it. I asked her why, and she took a defensive posture and retorted, “I don’t know, why?” So, not wanting to pressure her, I guess she doesn’t like to quibble over opinions either, I asked after how her family was doing. They were fine.

Thus, here I am, left to my own devises as to why I think this is a work worth investigating. I find an affinity with Jed Martin: “his long strolls … almost robotic … no external impressions reached his brain …whose only aim was to bring him each evening to a sufficient state of fatigue” (73). I also often share Jed’s realization that I am in “a world” that I have “never genuinely been a part of” (176-177). Then there is Jed’s consideration toward the Houellebecq character and not wanting to disturb him: “the only privilege of age, the single and sad privilege of age, was to have earned the right to be left alone, and it had seemed to him … that Houellebecq wanted above all else to be left alone” (233): I share this type of consideration and want it to be afforded to me.

Moreover, I want to be the Houellebecq that Houellebecq creates for the novel, the Houellebecq before decapitation: I am not quite as ready for death as the Houellebecq character: “my life is coming to an end … I would just like everything to end without excessive suffering, without debilitating illness, without infirmity” (171). I like the Houellebecq character’s fluctuations of calm and intensity, his way of seeing the mundane as more; perhaps Houellebecq wants to be that Houellebecq too: create the image you want in a Warholian sense: “Always omit the blemishes – they’re not part of the good picture you want” (Warhol; 62).

However, there is a lot of decomposition going on in this novel: Jed’s later works could be termed Decomposition Pieces. Arranging every photograph he possesses of people he had known throughout his life in front of his house in order to document the decay they undergo due to the elements, creating elaborate montages that show the decomposition of human productions with vegetation taking their place, Jed is both captivated by, and accepting of, decomposition: decomposition is the theme of his mature works, and when he is diagnosed with cancer, “he refuse[s] to be treated … and just [takes] comfort medication” (289). Yet, among all this decomposition he concedes that “he hadn’t had a bad life” (290).

Could accepting death, and the lead-up to it that is called life, on your own terms be a motif of the novel? It certainly appears to be, at least in my reading. Just as Houellebecq, in the all powerful and omniscient position of author, orchestrates his fantasy death through the utilization of the Houellebecq character, Jean-Pierre Martin, Jed’s father, takes control of his demise and dictates the end of his life with the help of a Swiss euthanasia clinic. It is through the elder Martin’s position on living and dying that perhaps something more can be gleaned. Commenting on his wife’s suicide, he tells his son: “I know she wasn’t satisfied with our life, … but is that sufficient reason for dying? I wasn’t satisfied with my life either” (139), and in contemplating his own end: “If he was to keep on going they would have to change his artificial anus, well, he thought he’d had enough of that joke” (230). So, until “that joke isn’t funny anymore”(The Smiths), why not, when not taking long walks, read things.

The Map and the Territory. Michel Houellebecq. Translated by Gavin Bowd. London: Vintage books, 2012.


The Smiths. “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore.” From the album Meat Is Murder. London: Rough Trade, 1985.

Warhol, Andy. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again). New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1977.

Michael Kearney
Tokyo, May 2013

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