Monday, March 26, 2012

Proof that it is impossible to write

I always remember Kafka's subtitle "Proof that it is Impossible to Live," but not any proof that his story contains. It came to mind again when I read James Wood saying this about Michel Houellebecq's latest novel:
Is Houellebecq really a novelist, or is he just a novelizing propagandist? Though his thought can be slapdash and hasty, it is at least earnest, intensely argued, and occasionally thrilling in its leaps and transitions. But the formal structures that are asked to dramatize his ideas—the scenes, characters, dialogue, and so on—are generally flimsy and diagrammatic. “The Map and the Territory” can’t quite decide what kind of novel it is going to be, and moves around restlessly, picking up subjects and briefly favoring them, before returning them to their lightly disturbed corners. Nothing is systematically or rigorously examined—which is to say that nothing is subjected to the longevity of narrative.
This is about right, I think, but it also kind of misses what I take to be the point. The novel ought to be of interest to readers of this blog. Houellebecq mentions Wittgenstein and Heidegger in it, and discusses architecture, nature, and modern culture generally. I doubt it's intentional, but the title could almost be a reference to Iris Murdoch's Under the Net, in which:
The "net" in question is the net of language. In Chapter 6, a quotation from Jake's book The Silencer includes the passage: "All theorizing is flight. We must be ruled by the situation itself and this is unutterably particular. Indeed it is something to which we can never get close enough, however hard we may try as it were to crawl under the net."
Houellebecq suggests that the map (or net) is more interesting than the territory, although in the end he seems happy enough that everything man-made ends up being reconquered by nature. Perhaps there's more to life than being interesting. So if we take the map (or net) as language, and the territory as the world it describes, then language is (it is claimed) more interesting than the world, but somehow inferior to it, in both power and value, nevertheless. That sounds as though it might be true.

So why is Houellebecq's novel such a mess? Why does it lack rigor and system? I think it lacks much in the way of characters, dialogue, etc. because that's the way Houellebecq is; his interests are more philosophical than those of most novelists, and he is diagrammatic when that is all he needs to be. It's his personality and his ideas that you read him for, not his characters or plots. The closest writer I can think of is Martin Amis, although Amis has nothing interesting to say (just a style of his own, which is no small achievement), but Houellebecq is something like a cross between Shaun Ryder and Dostoevsky (which means he's no Dostoevsky, of course, but still). Another way in which the book is a bit messy is that it's very hard to read. At least I found it hard to read more than a few pages at a time, but I don't think this is a fault.

What keeps interrupting the flow of the book is the commercial language of technical specifications and branding. No one just drives anywhere, they drive in a particular make and model of car, with particular features that might appeal to a consumer, both those involving engineering and those that reflect a certain lifestyle. Houellebecq gives his take on the demographics, simultaneously buying into the marketing language, mocking it, and staring at it in horror. It is there, after all, so you can hardly ignore it. And it is not something wholly outside us. We all want nice cars, cheap wine, fancy cameras, or other things of this sort. The gods may have flown but the fetishes are snugly entrenched. What we might think of as human life (i.e. a certain romantic ideal of what that naturally means) is constantly attacked or blocked by these artificial interventions. They are more interesting in the sense that they stimulate us, attract our attention, and give us something to talk and think about. But they are less real and less valuable than natural things. They are less satisfying. Houellebecq is not satisfied and seems to write from an unsatisfied desire for something that doesn't exist in our world, or for a world that is different, something like the kind of world that Tolstoy or Dostoevsky wanted, although Houellebecq knows as well as anybody that he is not from their world, nor does he try to write as if he were. On the contrary, there are suggestions that parts of the novel are copied from Wikipedia, which is about as this-worldly (this time, this space) as you can get. The language of inauthenticity speaks us, if you like.

The last third or so of the book is reminiscent of a Fred Vargas novel (to be precise, An Uncertain Place), but it is the very end that I liked the most (as well as the earlier discussions of architecture, which after all has a relation to philosophy, as David Cerbone has noticed--see the end of this interview, which I just discovered). Here's the last paragraph of the novel, describing the videos that the artist protagonist Jed Martin has taken to making at the end of his life:
The work that occupied the last years of Jed Martin's life can thus be seen—and this is the first interpretation that springs to mind—as a nostalgic meditation on the end of the Industrial Age in Europe, and, more generally, on the perishable and transitory nature of any human industry. This interpretation is, however, inadequate when one tries to make sense of the unease that grips us on seeing those pathetic Playmobil-type little figurines, lost in the middle of an abstract and immense futurist city, a city which itself crumbles and falls apart, then seems gradually to be scattered across the immense vegetation extending to infinity. That feeling of desolation, too, that takes hold of us as the portraits of the human beings who had accompanied Jed Martin through his earthly life fall apart under the impact of bad weather, then decompose and disappear, seeming in the last videos to make themselves the symbols of the generalized annihilation of the human species. They sink and seem for an instant to put up a struggle, before being suffocated by the superimposed layers of plants. Then everything becomes calm. There remains only the grass swaying in the wind. The triumph of vegetation is total.        
There are certainly echoes of Houellebecq's own work in this very novel here. It's both a nostalgic meditation on the perishable and transitory nature of any human industry and an uneasy and desolate portrait of  life. But it isn't that desolate. The triumph of vegetation sounds at least somewhat desirable. The grass swaying in the wind sounds nice, even if it is the grass growing on our graves. The central idea seems similar to John Betjeman's at the end of "Beside the Seaside":
And all the time the waves, the waves, the waves
Chase, intersect and flatten on the sand
As they have done for centuries, as they will
For centuries to come, when not a soul
Is left to picnic on the blazing rocks,
When England is not England, when mankind
Has blown himself to pieces. Still the sea,
Consolingly disastrous, will return
While the strange starfish, hugely magnified,
Waits in the jewelled basin of a pool. 
Similar too is the idea of stopping one's diary in Larkin's "Forget What Did":
And the empty pages?
Should they ever be filled
Let it be with observed

Celestial recurrences,
The day the flowers come
And when the birds go. 
Tarkovsky's Stalker also celebrates a victory of nature over violence and the power of human will in general. There are other examples (Coetzee's Michael K., for instance) of this kind of quasi-Buddhist, quasi-Christian (or post-Christian) ideal of a return to an unspoiled garden. It's rather Schopenhauerian. But Houellebecq puts it in a (to my mind suitably) cynical 21st century idiom.


  1. You make this book sound very interesting. I hugely enjoyed both Stalker and Michael K, I like Dostoevsky and Schopenhauer too, and I am a reader of your blog, so this is perhaps one for me. (I tend to find excessive use of, what you call, commercial language and brand names exhausting in novels, though they are inescapable parts of my world too, so I should perhaps think more about their influence on me.) The ending, I agree, sounds particularly interesting. These are questions and sentiments I share, to some extent. The last paragraph, by the way, made me think of The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, a non-fiction work that picks up right after the annihilation of the human species. I enjoyed that one.

    Thanks to your earlier recommendations, I have been meaning to read Houellebecq for a while, but never gotten around to it. (Maybe now is the time, I just need to finish some detective stories from Aberystwyth first...) Which of his books would you recommend as the first one?

  2. I meant to say that I recommend Whatever first (which was originally called something like The Extension of the Domain of the Struggle). It was, I believe, his first novel, it's his shortest, and it's one of his best. If you like that then read Atomised (also called The Elementary Particles) next--this is his best novel. If you like that then you'll want to read The Possibility of an Island, which is a kind of sequel, as I recall. Not as good, but very good in parts. And then I'd read The Map and the Territory, if you have the patience to wait that long.

    I'm glad you like Malcolm Pryce! And thanks for the tip about The World Without Us. I'll look into that.