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The Map and the Territory: ‘Death of the Author’ Renewed

In graduate school one of the most stimulating and inspiring courses I took was Dr. Randy Malamud’s 20th Century British Fiction course, which he sub-titled, The Death of the Author. We began with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, ran on to J.M. Coetzee’s Foe, and other similarly “postmodern” wonders like Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot, A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (after reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway), and others. Each of these 20th/21st century writers has riffed on the possibilities of this ‘death of the author’ trope and of course so have many others. I wouldn’t say that Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel has “the death of the author” as a primary theme per se, but it certainly does seem to fall in the range of his sensibilities as a satirist.

Also, upon a little examination of this controversial French author, it would seem that he believes the literary establishment has already made a caricature out of him, and that they don’t really read his books any more because they’ve already made up their minds about him. It’s an interesting point at which to first learn about the controversial author. My general impressions of The Map and the Territorare that this is a writer who doesn’t follow convention (he doesn’t mind (1) wandering off on philosophic or satirical tangents and (2) seems to care about plot movement only in the latter third of the novel when, again, he employs a detective style approach which seems as much to satirize the genre as anything, and (3) only develops character inasmuch as it might serve to titillate larger social purposes–or perhaps none at all), and that he doesn’t write what one would call an elegant prose. Houellebecq’s prose seems to fall more precisely into the journalistic.

The novel also deals extensively with art and art-as-commodity–thus, with consumerism in general–and the apparent arbitrariness how something is valued and exported. He also develops a motif of the person who is withdrawn, unaware of “happiness” as a concept, and yet is somehow at least content. Definitely ideas that an American audience should at least consider as antidote to the one-sided mentality of happiness as a commodity in itself.

While I wouldn’t say it was my favorite style or approach, it certainly is a worthwhile experience, especially for an American reader. There aren’t many novels written quite like this from American novelists, and his “French cynicism” isn’t entirely without “redemption.” In fact, I find that his ability to summarize categories of people, or historical movements with the sweep of a single sentence refreshing in the sense that any satire which is accurate, however disappointing or sad the perception may be. Some have classified him in the vein of a Voltaire, a Baudelaire, or a Marquis de Sade. Of those three, I find The Map and the Territory to fall most closely to Voltaire.

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