After two exciting quarterfinal match ups yesterday—with Chile and Mexico moving on to the semifinals—we’re back today with two “impossible to call” matches. First up is Michel Houellebecq and the pride of France facing off against America’s David Foster Wallace as The Map and the Territory takes on The Pale King.
Houellebecq’s trek to the quarterfinals started with a 3-2 victory over Ecuador and Alicia Yánez Cossío’s The Potbellied Virgin. He then rolled Cesar Aira and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter 4-1.
DFW started with a tough matchup against Portugal’s Gonçalo Tavares and his novel Jerusalem, but the American prevailed 3-2. Then, he took down Belgium’s The Misfortunates by Dimitry Verhulst by a score of 3-1.
Two heavyweights in today’s first quarterfinal . . .
P.T. Smith: USA
The Map and the Territory may play a flawless game, but it’s a familiar one, and like in soccer, those teams are always at risk against ambitious teams that have moments of glory, hoping their inevitable stumbles don’t cost them. The Pale King made me laugh more than anything in a long while, and created full consciousnesses on a single page. There are flaws, yes, but DFW’s writing is to an unfinished book as Tim Howard is the U.S. defense, and The Pale King holds on. Besides, when, other than WCL and the WC, do I get to root for the U.S. and have it not involve corporate capitalism or the military?
Lori Feathers: France
The Map and the Territory defeats The Pale King because it contains all the elements of the perfect novel: big ideas (art, death, capitalism), a great narrative with good pacing (this is where Houellebecq smokes DFW), and Houellebecq’s expressive (sometimes great) writing style. Not to mention, inventing his own brutal murder (so few remaining body parts that they fill only a child’s coffin) is original and ballsy enough to advance beyond the quarterfinals.
Tom Roberge: France
This match makes you painfully aware of the folly in pitting works of art against each other. If I’m forced to choose a winner, then I give the edge to Houellebecq if only because I enjoyed reading The Map and the Territory more, and pure and simple pleasure has to count for something.
Scott Esposito: France
The Pale King isn’t even actually a book after all . . .
Lance Edmonds: USA
By a mile.
Will Evans: USA
How funny to have two powerhouse novels by two brilliant authors who feature caricatures of themselves as characters in these two sloppy but brilliant novels. I preferred The Pale King but it came down to a shoot out for me.
Ryan Ries: USA
The Map and the Territory is a dark (and darkly funny) novel about death and art, a work that might be deemed a masterpiece if its author hadn’t already written one. The Pale King is shaggy, of course, disjointed and overlong too, but it also contains a few dazzling passages that make your heart ache in recognition of the so-called “human condition.” In a close match, it is these moments of transcendence, despite a consistent and accomplished effort from France, that push USA through to the semifinals.
And the US World Cup of Literature representative does what the US Men’s National Team just simply can’t: move on to the semifinals where The Pale King will face off against Mexico and Faces in the Crowd.
France and Ecuador take to the pitch in what appears to be a serious mismatch. France, represented by Prix Goncourt winner Michel Houellebecq, teamed up with translator Gavin Bowd, puts forth The Map and the Territory. Its first moves on the field show the level it wants to play at: Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst have posed for a painting, and the protagonist, another artist, this time fictional, is struggling to finish it. Houellebecq’s strategy is clear. He’s going to portray the contemporary world, the high-brow of commercialism, and while his flair and spite is French, he’s speaking to the English, to Americans, to the Western world.
Against the strength of the French side is them oldest contender in the tournament. Pushed into service without another able to take its place representing Ecuador, Alicia Yánez Cossío’s The Potbellied Virgin, aided by Amalia Gladhart’s translation, arrives to the tournament as an outsider. Set in the 60s and often reaching further into the past, living wholly in one small Ecuadorian village, The Potbellied Virgin can’t compete with The Map and the Territory on the same terms, to have any chance of moving on, it must embrace its own style, letting the French be as adventurous in the attack as Houellebecq wants, hoping to keep him from scoring, looking for its own opportunities to counterattack.
Houellebecq is indeed looking to be on the offensive, to strike often and quickly, against art, for art, against commercialism, for commercialism, against himself, and, through Jed, for himself. Yet, at this point he is a veteran, suave and poised on the ball, no overly-ambitious balls or reckless challenges. He understands when to be showy, creative, and why. The passes, towards the goal, away, towards again, are intricate. Of the attitude of French hotels Jed imagines:
a rich young urban couple without children, aesthetically very decorative, still in the first phase of their love affair—and for this reason quick to marvel at everything, in the hope of building up a store of beautiful memories that would come in handy when they reached the difficult year, perhaps enabling them to overcome a crisis in their relationship. They represented, for any professional in the hotel-restaurant trade, the archetype of ideal clients.
Houellebecq is probing the defense, pointing out the weak spots, the ways that we as humans give in to, thrive on, love commercial materialism, but then he’s letting us have it, writing of an artist dedicated to it, and the people caught up in it.
Against the hipness, the humor, the way the reader is rewarded while putting forth little of his own effort, Ecuador plays a complicated, defensive, possession game. Potbellied Virgin is a denser affair, inward-turning. It is slower than Map and the Territory, patient and asking the reader to pay more attention while not being as easily thrilled. In a unnamed Ecuadorian village two families rival for power, or more accurately, one family dominates while the other passes the time sitting on a bench, smoking cigarettes and remembering when they had land and power. Yánez Cossío sets opposites against each other, but they do not get split in the obvious ways. The matriarchy controls the town through religion, through their devotion to the town’s miracle idol, that Potbellied Virgin. The Benavides are conservative, but younger, newer to the town, and rich, rewarded by capitalism, and notably lighter-skinned, blonde, closer to those rewarded by imperialism. The other family, the Pandos, is the patriarchy, devoid of influence, tied to communism, irreligious, and though not native Indians, aligned with them rather than the American influence from the north.
The Potbellied Virgin may not be as bunkered down as Greece is in the Real World Cup, but it is content to keep the ball without moving forward. It wants to set up this self-contained world, tell the history of the town, of the political turmoil of the whole country, of the miracle of the flatbellied virgin becoming the Potbellied Virgin. Its defensiveness is not thuggish tackles or packing five men in the box, but of little passes amongst teammates, and beautiful ones at times. The relationships in the village matter for everything. The sons and daughters who switch their allegiance from one family to another are the forces that are quieted throughout much of the story, but build into the best chances at goal. Holding onto the ball, playing beautiful passes in the dusty streets of the village may not move forward, but is still nice to watch, and becomes an expression of a life outside of the world of Houellebecq’s grasping:
The acid deposits in her overworked veins ache, ache with the pain that will last until her death without respite or remedy, because she will always be standing among the large boulders of the river washing her clothes, the clothes of Magdalena Benavides who passes her time galloping from the hacienda into town, and who dents her so much clothing that isn’t even dirty, for the pleasure of making her work and harassing her with the hard soap of bad fortune.
In control of the match, Houellebecq tells of Jed Martin’s career as an artist, and his life as a man. He has a distant connection with his father, brought close by their shared isolation and their acceptance of that isolation, and though he has great loves in his life, Houellebecq never gives us hope that they will break Martin from his isolation. Besides, if those loves did take him from solitary life, we cannot imagine room for his art. Jed is a Zidane, a Pirlo, playing his own game in the middle of the pitch, independent, grumpy, yet making connections no one else is able to see until after the fact. By creating a visual artist, with works that if brought to life could be as interesting and successful in real life as they are in the book, Houellebecq threatens to score early but Ecuador manages to hold on. Until just before half-time that is, when the pleasure of The Map and the Territory, through pure enjoyment of the game, playing while having fun, puts through a lovely ball (Houellebecq’s portrayal of himself, beaten, a wrecked man, but through Jed’s eyes, somewhat magnificent), cleanly finished, and takes a lead into the locker room.
Drawn out, The Potbellied Virgin needs to press forward to tie. It is a task Yánez Cossío is up to. To solve a country-wide drought, the Benavides are willing to send out the Potbellied Virgin to travel the country, followed by rain. When the army becomes involved, the Pando convince the town that the Virgin is being sold, greedy religious-capitalism from the Benavides, and the town rises up, fighting off the army with whatever is at hand, mainly the mattresses they were sleeping on in the church while protecting the Virgin:
But what gives the greatest results in the uneven and ferocious combat are the mattresses. With the bare mattress blows they charge the sacrilegious troops calling them thieves, faggots, and all the son-of-a-bitches they can muster. A cloud of dust obscures the sun and the sheep’s wool of all the disemboweled mattresses covers the streets and plaza.
With humor and violence, all the while staying reserved, sticking to the slow style that kept the match equal for so long, The Potbellied Virgin ties the match at one.
But right after, The Map and the Territory presses again. The relationship between Jed and Houellebecq deepens, and so the relationship between Houellebecq and Houellebecq becomes more compelling, an old love briefly returns, human connection again and again seems briefly possible before falling off. The Potbellied Virgin is playing with confidence, happy to have made things level eager for another one. Yet, Ecuador is overexposed, the conflict between Pandos and Benavides heats up, without either side gaining anything.
With the massive success of Jed’s art career, a project of portraits culminating in one of Houellebecq, he almost finds happiness. He is rich, he has a chance with his greatest love. There’s a happy ending in sight, and even if we bemoan sappy, unearned happy endings, don’t we still want one sometimes? Destroying one so perfectly set up, what’s the reward in that? Houellebecq finds it. It is lost not because of cynicism, not because of the dark brooding that feeds every summer blockbuster now, but because for Jed, it is overwhelming, happiness is impossible to embrace, it is too fleeting, and must be caught in the perfect moment, or it’s lost, and that moment can be, will be, terrifying. Jed does not turn to angst or depression, but a sort of paralysis, and when this is so compassionately understood, articulated, given compassion, The Map and the Territory goes up 2-1.
Ecuador is more desperate now. The Benavides begin to lose their control of the village, their daughters not living up to their roles as living icons. Power and wealth become more important than their faith. The Virgin, belief in her miracle, becomes fully a tool of control, no longer true devotion. Their matriarch, Doña Carmen blackmails and bribes rivals into aligning with her. The three daughters of a former communist are rewarded with riches, if they act out the role of virginal caretakers for the Potbellied Virgin. Purity no longer matters, just the obedience that faith in it once created. When Doña Carmen begins to paint threats on her own walls in order to foment dissent between her rivals, any sense of herself is lost. These risks, this destruction of the village, looks like it is going to pay off. Crosses bang in, but are too high, or headers go wide.
In the midst of this, The Map and the Territory makes a substitution. Satire, humor, art, commercialism, are left in, but pure literary fiction is taken off, and sent on in its place is top-flight genre fiction. French police vomit at a horrific crime scene, aging detectives work with their young replacements to solve a high-profile murder, and our former protagonist becomes part of the investigation. The switch does wonders. Losing no pace, no fluidity, but gaining width and pace where exhaustion had it lagging, France scores again almost immediately after the substitution, to take what seems like an impossible to overcome 3-1 lead.
From then, Ecuador fights back fiercely. Finally giving in to rough challenges, unafraid of hitting again and again to take control of the ball, The Potbellied Virgin never stops threatening France’s goal. Knowing that violence has suited Houellebecq well, Yánez Cossío tries her hand at it, with the accidental death of a child in the conflict that Doña Carmen created, in the awful and haunting retribution for that accident, where our hearts break as the offender lays dying, accepting that death. Past that, though, she offers that thing Houellebecq denies us: successful love. The lovers need to exile themselves, but there is hope for a return one day, for: “the man of flesh and blood, of weakness and lunacy that he was until a short time ago, becomes the mystic the town needs to move ahead through so many troubles, for it seems even the image of the Virgin was wearing out . . .” With that, with relentless fierceness and hope, Ecuador scores in the 87th minute, bringing it to 3-2 and giving hope.
It was not to be. France holds on to the victory we expected them to take, too wily, too thrilling, rewarding us with ease, but Ecuador was inspired, and created a memorable match, one you recount any time you’re at a bar, one too many in, telling tales of sports and literature. It’s the type of performance that truly makes you hope that Alicia Yánez Cossío has the chance to compete in translation again.
P.T. Smith is a writer and critic living in Vermont. He has written for Three Percent, BOMB, Quarterly Conversation, and most recently Bookslut.
As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq, translated from the French by Gavin Bowd and published by Knopf
This piece is by New Directions publicity and Three Percent podcaster, Tom Roberge.
When dealing with any book by French author Michel Houellebecq, it’s almost impossible to discuss the book itself, by itself, so we might as well address this whole thing right now. Yes, he seems (how can we really know, after all; his writerly persona might be precisely that: a persona) to be a bit of a, to put it nicely, antisocial curmudgeon. He seems to have little patience for the literary world and the window-dressing sort of appearances and interviews that coincide with the publication of any novel by a well-known (if not exact well-loved) author. This is, after all, a man whose mother wrote some rather disparaging things about him in her own memoir. And these are all frequent topics of discussion because his narrators, too, possess many of these characteristics. They’re often selfish, apathetic, skeptical, and downright miserable. But, and I’ve been pleading this case for years now, I believe that underneath the surface-level nihilism and general ennui of his novels is an author who truly believes in love, in human beings’ ability to make each other profoundly happy. The ability, he suggests, is within all of us, if only we’d stop worrying about the rest of the crap that defines our modern world.
Which brings us to The Map and the Territory. I’ve read and reread all of Houellebecq’s novels, and though I think The Elementary Particles is brilliant and that Platform is insanely fun, I also think this is his best book, the most accomplished in terms of pacing and plotting, the most stylistically riveting on a page-by-page basis, and the most sophisticated in terms of its themes. And boy oh boy are there a lot of them packed in here, twisted into each other, fighting for control and attacking the reader with their combined power.
Artist Jed Martin is the novel’s central conduit for Houellebecq’s exploration of these themes, and the first section of the book focuses on a series of Martin’s digital prints that are fantastic enlargements of Michelin road maps, with quite a few creative embellishments. The prints critique something that a lot of Americans living in big cities will also recognize: the middle and upper-class romanticization of rural life, of farming, of living off the land, of what they imagine is “a simpler life.” All bullshit, obviously, and not exactly news, but Houellebecq dissects the trend beautifully, mimicking and mocking the obtuse language of the art world at the same time.
But then Martin stops working. Altogether. For years. And when he re-emerges, he decides to become a portrait painter, and yet again he takes dead aim at the prevailing trends of the middle- and upper-class consumers of “intellectual” products, be they works of art or gadgets or something in between. By which I mean he paints portraits of people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, but puts them in an imaginary scene in which they “Discuss the Future of Information Technology,” their expressions greedy and all-knowing, larger-than-life, terrifying. He also—and this brings me back to the opening paragraph, to the notion of Houellebecq as the antisocial curmudgeon—travels to Ireland to paint a novelist, Michel Houellebecq, who has agreed, after much trepidation, to write the catalog copy for an exhibition of the portraits in exchange for a portrait of himself. This is, and excuse the pun, a stroke of genius. It allows Houellebecq (the writer of the book, as opposed to the writer/character in the book) to confront the personal attacks on his character head-on, to bring the discussion of the prevailing themes that recur in his books into this book, to offer a subtle rebuttal to everything that’s been said about him and his work in the book, rather than having to appear on television to be mocked by a pretentious journalist, or having to endure an endless interview session. “Here,” he seems to be saying, “you want to know what I think about everything that’s been said about me? This is what I think, and this is why I’ve fled to Ireland, to get the hell away from your miserable games.”
There’s also one more theme and plot element that’s thoroughly amazing, but I really don’t want to spoil anything about this book for anyone who might be compelled to read it. Let me just say that it’s both typically Houellebecq-esque and wholly surprising and, of course, provocative. And who doesn’t love being provoked?
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