Stephen Durrant's Reviews > La Carte et le Territoire

La Carte et le Territoire by Michel Houellebecq
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Dec 12, 2010

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Houellebecq has been for the last decade France's most controversial novelist. Certain members of the Goncourt Prize Committee have vowed that he would never be awarded France's highest literary prize. Well, with this novel he wore down the opposition and won the prize he so obviously has coveted (his somewhat fawning presence in Paris at the time of the deliberations and of the eventual award presentations was a bit painful to watch--the aging naughty boy seemed a little too nice and eager). Moreover, "La carte et le territoire" seems purposely and quite cleverly written to disarm his critics. There are plenty of fairly high minded discussions of art, sure to please the more intellectual readers, and poignant pages about dealing with an aging parent, which connects the novel emotionally to an ever-growing demographic of baby-boomers watching parents die. But cleverest of all, he creates himself as a character, a rather sympathetic and touching character of course, and makes himself the victim of a violent murder. So much of this self portrayal, which he can always excuse as "just a fictional device," seems to say to his critics, among other things, "I'm not such a bad guy. All my ex-lovers are fond of me and keep in touch, I may even have secretly converted to Catholicism, and I fantasize about returning and living a solitary life in the countryside my beloved France," etc. This novel is a nicely calculated piece of manipulation. And it worked! Still, Houellebecq is interesting. He has pages of social observations that are extremely insightful. Moreover--and on this point many French readers would disagree--he has a surprisingly warm tone of humanism simmering somewhere below his famous nihilism. As a novel, however, I think "La carte et le territoire" is a bit clunky . . . and it lacks the wild imagination and occasional nastiness that brought so much "shocked" condemnation from those who like their novelists a bit closer to the Proustian than the Celinian end of the artistic spectrum.
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Matt S Great review

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