Houellebecq’s bizarre new novel is (almost) brilliant

Heinemann , £17.99

THE arcane title of this book should serve as a fair warning to the reader familiar with Atomised, Platform and other cult Houellebecq novels. While those books are driven by sexual desperation and erotic tragedy (alongside the usual heaping helpings of profound dystopia), The Map and the Territory is not so easy to categorise. That fiddly, chewy title is derived from a quote by the Polish-American philosopher and linguist, Alfred Korzybski: “the map is not the territory” and is not one that most people will recognise or grasp easily.

Well, most people will not entirely grasp what Houellebecq is doing in this book either, but they’ll try jolly hard and, more importantly, will enjoy doing so.

In a big break from the past, there is almost no sex here. By contrast, sexual denial and the power of platonic male relationships are among the book’s most striking attributes. But it’s the ruthless specificity of the topics covered that is most entrancing. It’s insect trafficking one minute, the pleasures of the French hypermarket the next, then gruesome murder the next – all in shocking detail.

Broadly, the book follows the rise of Jed Martin, a Paris-based artist with austere tastes and an unflinchingly rigorous approach to his work. Though he becomes the would-be darling of the French culture scene as well as the art world’s richest denizen, Martin has zero interest in celebrity, wealth or – so it seems – human relationships.

Martin makes his name through a series of photos of Michelin maps, ending up meeting Michelin’s fastest rising communications executive, a stunningly beautiful Russian woman called Olga. The apple of virtually every man’s eye, she loves only him, but when she is sent to work in the Russian office he lets her go without fanfare.

However, it is his relationship with the book’s other central character, Michel Houellebecq himself, that is of greatest interest to Jed and to us. The two men meet when Jed flies to Ireland (where the author used to live in real life) to discuss the catalogue he has agreed to write for Jed’s next exhibition. They fall in love, after a fashion, both peering deep at worldly phenomena in ways that nobody else would: their first passionate conversation revolves around radiator manufacturing.

A hideous crime defines part two of the book. It’s a great plot twist, but a challenge too far for the reader, asking us to assimilate meaningfully yet another piece of an already strange puzzle. In the end, the feeling is of a great randomness that is certainly profound, but that we don’t have the tools to understand. We are shown unchartered territory, but given no map.

Bantam, £18.99

THE Affair is the latest in the the Jack Reacher series that started with 1997’s The Killing Floor. All feature semi-retired military policeman Jack Reacher who spends time taking down the US army’s own corrupt, dishonest and dangerous. The 15th of the award-winning Reacher novels, The Affair is set pre-Killing Floor and follows Reacher’s adventure to the obscure mid-west town of Kelham to investigate both a growing number of gruesome murders and their mysteriously vague investigation by an equally tough, female, stunningly good-looking cop.

This is thriller writing at its best. Reacher is a fantastic no nonsense hero, who kicks ass (about 14 asses in total, or one every 30 pages, a good balance between Bond’s 1 every 60 and Andy McNab’s 3 per page) and doesnt need gadgets, helicopters or even an integral reason in the plot to do so.

The one downside to this conspiracy thriller is that the reader isn’t told much about any of the bad guy’s motivations. A troubled childhood, an inferiority complex; sometimes it might have been interesting to hear the bad guy’s point of view before Reacher snaps their neck, breaks their arms or executes a flawless nipple-cripple.

Overall, though, the book is pacy – there’s plenty of tension to feast on and the plot is just believable enough to carry you right through. Alasdair Byers