Michel Houellebecq – The Map and the Territory

This dark and thoroughly readable novel offers a thought provoking take on art and the art world the temporary nature of life.

It focuses on a reluctant artist, Jed Martin. After an almost loveless upbringing – his mother committed suicide and his architect father shut him out by choosing boarding school for Jed and working continuously – Jed finishes university as an intelligent loner. His father buys him a small Paris apartment, and from there Jed drifts and thinks and works.

His earliest phase an artist sees him photographing hundreds of industrial and man made objects, earning him a misunderstood respect among his peers.

He then begins creating a series of photographs based on Michelin maps that are regarded as works of huge beauty. The Michelin company loves them, he receives artistic prestige, meets a beautiful Russian woman living in Paris – Olga – but characteristic of Jed, he fell into creating these works of art and when Olga leaves for Russia he leaves it all

begins are becomes a recluse once more.

Ten years later he’s exploring painting, this time painting everyday and famous figures in ways that capture their essence. Waiters, bakers, executives, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates – he paints many – and they become recognised as great depictions of people, and at this point he comes to be seen as one of France’s greatest artists.

It’s at this point too that he meets the author Houellebecq, living as a drunken, depressed recluse in Ireland. They begin an acquaintance based on a shared antipathy to the world. Jed does a portrait and gives it to him, and though they rarely see each other it looks like they’d be friends of sorts – until, that is, Houellbecq is brutally murdered after moving into his family home in rural France.

The story then focuses on the policeman investigating the murder, and in a sense the book turns away from Jed and the art world to the investigators. But eventually we return to Jed as a rich artist who has bought his grandparents’ old house in the countryside and adjoining land and built an estate that allows him to live for over a decade without meeting anyone. He even builds a private road in order to avoid going into the nearby village.

At the same time, though, he is working on a series of overlaid films that depict the organic breakdown of matter, including his artworks, that show the finite nature of human life and meaning – a series discovered after his death, when it is seen as a masterpiece.

Besides the rich plot and characterisation, and the simple prose (despite its translation from French), there are some brilliant themes in this.

One is the question of the authorial intent of an artist. Jed appears to create works that people see as offering a deep insight into being human. But in Jed we see none of this gift: he is lonely, taken up by everyday concerns like the boiler, and rarely seems introspective or reflective. Where do these works come from? How much are they intended? The same appears to apply to the character of Houellebecq when we meet him too. Autobiographical maybe? Who knows.

Another interesting question raised, though a more cynical one, is the relation between money and art. Jed is able to spend time on complex artistic works because he’s relatively well off at the start and not occupied with the drudgery of work, and at the end when he’s rich. Further, it’s because Michelin and various rich people are flattered that he has taken them as subjects that we see his popularity and the price of his paintings increase. It’s not all about money, the recognition of good art, but it plays, its part it seems to be saying.

One thing that intrigues throughout the book is the author – is it Houellebecq? Whoever it is they often offer strong opinions that can’t always entirely be ascribed to the characters they are talking about: on religion, or immigration, or the state of France say. It might be that the little I know of Houellebecq is that he’s a controversial public figure prone to reactionary views, and so I was looking for this, or it might be that this undertone is there. I need to read more of him to see, and will.

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“I know very well that human beings are the subject of the novel, of the Great Western Novel, and one of the great subjects of painting as well, but I can’t help thinking that people are much less different than they generally think. That there are too many complications in society, too many distinctions and categories.”

Jed Martin speaking in Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory

“The more arid and affectless life became in the high rise, the greater the possibilities it offered. By it’s very efficiency… it removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behaviour, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses… in many ways, the high rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly ‘free’ psychopathology.”

JG Ballard, High Rise

JG Ballard – High Rise

This is a fantastic and disturbing story, as well as a meditation on the base urges that are only partially hidden by the veneer of modern society.

The novel focuses on the minutiae of social breakdown in a suite of high rise apartment blocks populated by well-to-do professionals – academics, doctors, journalists, marketers, entrepreneurs. The 1000th apartment had just been filled and gradually the deterioration begins. First there are minor fall-outs over the elevator or waste chutes or swimming pool access. Next there are loud parties where the upper floors taunt and begin to physically intimidate those from below.

Eventually all conventions breakdown: dogs are killed and eaten, people physically attacked, there’s no lighting or food or hygiene, people are murdered, family units are given up, women are raped. Eventually there is nothing left but unfiltered desires for basic urges: violence, sex, food.

The book tells the story through three characters. Laing, a young doctor, recently divorced, who loves the high rise, seems to some extent able to view it objectively whilst also being entirely implicated in its degeneration, and who gradually becomes more and more depraved. Wilder, a TV journalist who wants to make a documentary about the high rise but is unable to maintain his objectivity and degenerates into no more than a savage. And Royal, one of the architects of the high rise living in the penthouse, who is as little responsible for its demise as the others or the building itself.

As well as a gripping story, High Rise is a powerful allegory. Partly it’s of high rise and city living, of the way that by living close together people will inevitably give way to basic selfish urges. But as much as anything it’s an allegory for how human culture, norms and civilisation obscure a host of basic animal drives that are a the core of what it is to be human. In a way it’s another example of ‘desolation fiction’, writing about the basics, the essentials, of life once all the unnecessaries of modern life have been stripped away.

I do love this book, though it is somewhat essentialist about what makes humans human. In part it is essentialist about human drives. But also about gender. The men, as they degenerate, become lone hunter gatherers, intent on getting or protecting women, on violence, on sex. The women work together in packs, maintain a semblance of a home, look for men to please. Whether Ballard’s commenting on what underlies men and women’s roles in modern society, or saying it’s something more enduring than that, it’s hard to say, but either way it seems to reflect a kind of stereotyped view of men and women.

But that aside, High Rise is a superb study of how modern life is no more than a veneer pasted over the reality beneath.

John McGregor – Reservoir 13

What initially appears to be a crime novel quickly turns into something wholly more intriguing and experimental.

A young girl, Rebecca Shaw, has gone missing near reservoir 13 above a Peak District village. There’s some focus on this at the start, and references throughout, but more than anything the disappearance forms the backdrop to the novel’s focus on the life of the village.

Set over 13 years, McGregor tells the story of the people and the wildlife of the village. In 13 chapters, where each month might get a few pages – though it’s not regimented, not set – and in long paragraphs, he covers some of the people in the village like the Hunters and the Fletchers and the Joneses, as well as the nature surrounding them. Through short vignettes we get to know intimate details of the villagers’ lives, both the mundane and the remarkable, and a picture of their lives builds up as we visit them for brief periods time and time again over the years.

The development of the youngsters James, Rowan, Sophie, Lyndsey, is most interesting – from just teenagers (who knew the missing girl Rebecca, fleetingly) to twenty somethings, we see their tight relationship to one another unravel and then come together again differently. They follow divergent paths, university, marriage, that kind of thing, but there remains a bond – perhaps because of the girl’s death, perhaps because of their historic friendship.

The book is beautifully written. Pared down, short sentences, simple words, entirely descriptive all the way through, in a way that accurately captures so much of village life. One striking thing about the style, too, is the way everything is smooth and flowing, but the numbering of the reservoirs is jaunty when mentioned; they really stand out, making you remember the missing girl that acts as a shadow over the book.

What the novel really achieves is capturing the endless flow of life, the way lives repeat, iterate and change; the way certain things bind people into a community – bonfire night, annual pantomimes, new year celebrations, the school, mischief night, even the shared history of a missing girl. Some events stand out like Jones the school caretaker being arrested for child pornography, Martin and Wendy’s relationship breaking down, Suzanne Wright’s violent ex-husband turning up. But mostly human life is like animal life – seasonal, cyclical, habitual.

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

This has more than you could expect from a big American novel – immigration, assimilation, sprawling and complicated families, race, food, diners, urban decline, enterprise, all of it – but with an added twist that marks the ambivalence of everything.

The narrator is Calliope Stephanides, a hermaphrodite. This is her / his story but it’s also that of her Greek immigrant grandparents Desdemona and Lefty, and her parents Tessie and Milton. It begins with her grandparents living in Greece and eventually travelling to the States during war. In these extraordinary times Desdemona and Lefty, who are in fact brother and sister, realise their love for one another and marry, though vow to tell nobody.

After moving to America we follow them finding their way in the US and settling in Detroit. Lefty earns money by starting a speakeasy and then a bar – the Zebra Rooms – they have children, and the book then moves on to their son, Milton, and his wife Tessie. Whereas the grandparents remain only partially assimilated, Milton is the all-American male of the American dream, eventually creating a successful chain of hot dog restaurants, but managing to alienate his wife and kids with his posturing masculinity.

Then comes Calliope (and her oddly named brother, Chapter Eleven), and we follow her through the first 16 or so years of her life. Her gradual coming of age as a teenager sees her peers becoming adolescents but Calliope’s body refusing to grow breasts or begin periods. She falls for another girl (known as the Obscure Object), but eventually she ends up going to see a sex specialist who diagnoses her and says a small operation will make her all-girl.

But Calliope doesn’t feel like a girl, so she runs away – hitching, living in a park in San Francisco and becoming an act in a sexual freak show. And she cuts her hair, changes her name to Cal and becomes a boy.

This is just one of those huge absorbing novels, where you can get lost in the characters and the romance and the details. The lives of the family are set against the backdrop of Greek and Turkish wars, prohibition, race riots, the rise and decline of industry in Detroit, sexual liberation, all of it.

As the narrator, Calliope gives us details that nobody could know – about her grandparents, about herself in the womb – making it part research, part fantasy, part guesswork, part elaboration, part author’s license.

And throughout, what Eugenides gives us the ambiguity of life – nothing is straightforward. The Greek war with Turkey, the island of Cyprus split between the two, marital and familial love, nature and nurture, sexuality and gender, nothing is ever one thing or the other but lives in an ambiguous place in the middle. Middlesex.

“Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in ‘sadness’, ‘joy’, or ‘regret’… I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, ‘the happiness that attends disaster.’ Or ‘the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.'”

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

History of Wolves – Emily Fridlund

A thought provoking and beautifully written book about family, relationships and the essentials of being human.

Linda is a teenage girl living with her parents by the lakes in Canada after an experiment in communal living broke down. A bit of an outsider, she latches on to a new family that moves into a cabin across the lake. She befriends the young Mum, Patra, and becomes a babysitter and stand-in sister for the young son, Paul.

But then the Dad – Leo – returns, a scientist and it turns out Christian Scientologist. Linda feels a spare part but then it gets worse. Paul seems to be ill, but the parents’ faith means medical treatment is forbidden…

A lot of this book is about how Linda reacts, or doesn’t, when Paul falls ill. In some ways it asks how someone who’s lived as an outsider might deal with a dilemma; but for many people the response may well be the same. It might be hard to see what’s going on, to not be blinded by the father, by the mother’s relationship with him, the feeling of being replaced, and it all happens fast. Who could say how they’d react in this situation.

Likewise, Linda thinks of herself as an outsider, but actually is she so much more an outsider than other teenagers? It’s hard to penetrate what’s perceived from what’s real.

A big theme of this book is, if you like, thought and action. Can you be held responsible for your thoughts? Mr Griegson, a teacher Linda has in her early teens, turns out to have images of young kids on his computer but never have acted on anything like it. Linda didn’t think or act to protect Paul. Leo’s thoughts and actions are out of kilter with modern world views. Big questions.

And the book is very much about the nuclear family and its limits – the commune collapsed, but are the dysfunctional nuclear families of Linda or Paul any better? If anything it’s the mutual relationships between families, as Linda cares for Paul and his Mum, that makes for the strongest set-up – the history of wolves of the title perhaps?

For me this is another brilliant book in an oeuvre of what seems to be ‘desolation fiction’: stories set in remote locations where the characters are thrown back to the bare essentials of life: wilderness, relationships, survival.

The Electric Michelangelo – Sarah Hall

Told with precision and beauty, this is a hugely atmospheric story of a life both fully and partly lived.

It tracks one man’s life, Cy Parks, and how it grows and shrinks with those he love and ultimately loses – his childhood friends in Morcambe, Reeda his Mum, Eliot Riley his drunk mentor and boss, and Grace his would-be lover.

Set in the 1920s to the 60s, Cy is a tattoo artist who learns his trade in Morcambe under the tutorage of the alcoholic and ill tempered Eliot before moving to the US and taking a booth at Coney Island, where he meets the mysterious and powerful Grace. As he tattoos eyes all over her body, they appear to fall for one another, but the opportunity is cut short by an attack on her by someone who hated that she was a strong woman challenging the conventions of what it was to be a woman.

The descriptions and contrasts between Morcambe and Coney Island are vivid, conjuring up the people, the smells, the eccentricities, as well as contrasting the solid predictability of Morecambe with the transgressive-ness of Coney. Hall expresses both so well.

The female characters are strong in this book – his Mum is a hotelier by day and abortionist by night (it’s set in the 1920s to 1950s) and Grace’s life is one of fierce independence, someone who challenges the objectification of women by tattooing eyes all over her body.

So much of this book is an original and insightful exploration of tattooing – of how the skin is a vital organ, of how the skin bares the soul, how a tattoo is a way for people to express conscious and unconscious parts of their selves, and ultimately how skin, the body, is intricately linked to the mind.

Moshin Hamid – Exit West

This is a humanising story about immigration and the effect it has on people – a brilliantly written book that feels so right for the times.

It focuses on two young people in an unnamed but presumably Middle Eastern city – Nadia and Saeed. Nadia’s a bit of a rebel, riding a motorbike, though she maintains safety by wearing a long black robe. Saeed is not so rebellious but is an honest man, interested in girls and a little weed like most his age.

They get together slowly, and then quickly, before their city begins to resemble a war zone as militants attack and the government defends. They see less of each other and Saeed’s Mum is killed in a bombing.

Then they hear about doors popping up all over the city, ones that lead to other towns and cities. First they travel to Mykonos in Greece, then London, then San Francisco. We see the stress and isolation and hardship takes its toll on their relationship, in time growing irritable with one another and ultimately apart.

The first thing that’s striking about the book is its style – short, yes, but importantly very readable and the author all-knowing. It’s written in this style, arguably, in order to present their experiences as objective in some way, or at least to be dispassionate in the telling.

Also striking is the richness of the two main characters, their depth. At no point are they stereotypes but instead are a complex mix of fun, and sadness, and music, and rebellion, and piety, and fun. Unlike say, Rose Tremain, whose plot and main character in The Road Home are gripping but follow the familiar story of the East European migrant, Hamid’s characters are of their own – as of course all migrants, all people, are.

Rose Tremain – The Road Home

This is a solid story that gets into the mind and under the skin of a migrant in search of work and hope.

It tells the story of Lev, a father and widow from Eastern Europe who travels to the UK in search of work, the lumberyard in his home town of Auror having closed down.

The novel follows Lev’s arrival in London, his search for work which he finds in kitchens through a mix of good luck – Lydia, who he travels over with on the bus is well-connected – and hard work – and his relationships with his landlord and friend Chrisy, and girlfriend for a while, Sophie. Eventually he develops cooking skills and raises enough money to go back home, where can help his family and friend Rhudi.

There’s an element of stereotype about the story though – the hardworking immigrant, slightly aggressive at times, doing all he can to help people back home.

But psychologically, emotionally, this is a great read. Lev is a strong character and Tremain really gets under his skin – his desires, his sadness for his wife, the difficulties of being foreign, his kindness, his aggressive streak – all of it. It’s the richness, the detail, that elevates the story and makes it a compelling read.

Partly this book seems to be humanising or subjectifying the migrant experience, but it’s also much more personal – about loss and memory. Perhaps Lev has to leave what he’s familiar with in order to get over the loss of his wife, Marina, and it’s only when he gets back to Auror and Baryn that he can move on with his life?

Steve Tolz – Quicksand

This is an incredible piece of writing brilliance and a wise and often hilarious read.

Liam’s best friend is Aldo Benjamin, a force of nature who has more life packed into his thirty or so years than whole generations of people at a time.

Liam, a wanna-be writer, needs a subject and so Aldo becomes it, with Liam telling Aldo’s story – the failed businesses, time in prison, his drinking, his lost child, accusations of rape, his relationship with lover and wife Stella, his crippling disabilities and illnesses, and his eventual martyrdom and death on a rock as he begins to and eventually gives up setting up a new religion.

There’s no simple plot; rather snapshots of Aldo’s incredible life, told with such energy and a kind of joyful cynicism, if that’s possible.

What’s great about Aldo is he is constantly speaking unlikely or oxymoronic truths about life that read like aphorisms. In fact, knowing that Tolz’s last book was quite philosophical, it was easy at times to see Aldo like a twenty first century entrepreneurial, nihilistic Nietzsche, one raised on reality TV and art and poverty.

Ali Smith – Winter

Like so much of Ali Smith’s books, Winter is a light, joyful and highly readable exploration of the reality of ideas, in this case the complexities of truth.

It centres on Art and his mother Sophie and Aunt, Iris. Art’s relationship with his girlfriend Charlotte has broken down, and she is sending fake tweets from his account (he is a known nature writer). He was going to take Charlotte home to meet his Mum – an elderly and previously successful no-nonsense business woman – for Christmas. Wanting to take someone he pays Lux, who he meets at a bus stop, to pretend to be Charlotte.

They visit, and finding Sophie unwell – she has being seeing a disembodied head floating around her and is losing her health – Lux calls for Iris, her sister. Iris and Sophie haven’t spoken for 20 years, in part because Iris was an antinuclear activist and idealist, Sophie a realist.

Thrown together thus, all manner of truths begin to be nudged out, primarily by Lux who is open, honest and warm. She gives up the pretence of being Charlotte (in a brilliant scene) and gradually the family – Art, Sophie and Iris – tease through their relationships.

As much as anything this is a book about truth – what it is, what hides it. Art isn’t bothered about Charlotte stealing his online identity because the one he portrays is equally false. The truth of Iris and Sophie’s history, relationships and lives is talked about too, but what happened is not always clear – they have different versions.

And the role of Lux is intriguing – she is the most likeable character and she brings together the three family members; without her they wouldn’t have been able to talk so well. And they all relate to her – in part because she’s frank and open, but also because they don’t know her like they know one another: people are complex and her honest appearance is just the first layer, she is being truthful and honest as far as we know, but like an onion there will be more inside as you get to know her.

Elmet – Fiona Mozley

Among the best books I’ve ever read, Elmet is a brilliant novel about land and the countryside, family and loyalty, poverty and class.

It’s narrated by Daniel, the brother of independent Cathy and their Dad, John. They live a lawless life in a wooden hut in Yorkshire, living off the land, foraging, and from what John – a giant and renowned fighter – can earn from staged fights organised by travellers and others for bets. They don’t attend school but get their education from a family friend, Vivian, who teaches them at her home in the nearby village.

All is good if a bit risky occasionally (and worse when John goes away), until John teams up with local workers and tenants to take on their landlord and employer, Mr Price. He is the muscle, his job to scare off the thugs who threaten people in the village who hold out against Price. It gradually seems to work – until one of Price’s sons is murdered and John is the main suspect. The kids are captured, and he seems to disappear, regardless of whether he’s the killer or not. We get fleeting flashes forward through the book from Daniel who is searching for his sister some years later, and the Dad’s whereabouts remain unknown, giving the whole thing some ambiguity.

It’s a great story, but even more than than that it is the setting that makes it. The brilliant and accurate descriptions of the countryside, both beautiful and gritty. And the way it’s portrayed in a way so often ignored by nature writers: unruly, large, wild; full of people with low pay jobs struggling to earn a living; a place where life is difficult and unsanitised for many.

There’s also a great little bit where Daniel is talking about. Vivian’s house and realises that whereas Cathy likes the outdoors, the freedom of the wild, he likes the comforts of inside: cushions, materials, the warmth. It’s a great little insight; one of so many.

There’s so much to say about this book… but I’ll leave it there.

Metroland – Julian Barnes

A well written story and thoughtful portrayal of how radicalism both dissipates and becomes part of us as we age.

It’s narrated by Chris, and is broken into three sections.

The first part is when Chris and his best friend Toni were art loving cynical and pretentious teenagers in suburbia, often visiting London or laughing at their school friends and neighbours at the end of the Metropolitan line (hence the book’s title).

Second is when Chris is in Paris, in 1968, discovering love and honesty with a French girl, his first love. He misses the political upheaval but nevertheless experiences the same kind of changes going on around him.

Third is when Chris is in his early 30s having settled down with a family – a wife and small child – and now living back in Metroland. His life is conventional, but he and his wife (who he met while in France) still combine elements of bohemia with their suburbia. The change is brought into contrast when Chris meets up with Toni who has retained more of his arty cynicism, and sees Chris as having mellowed into normalness.

Metroland is brilliantly written, with great sentences building on one another throughout. And it’s a thoughtful reflection on what happens as you age, on how youthful radicalism is combined into daily life as you mature. 

“That day I carried the dream around like a full glass of water, moving gracefully so I would not lose any of it.”

Miranda July, in No one belongs here more than you

“Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday. I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: Your mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Deep sympathy. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.”

Albert Camus’s great opening to The Outsider 

Books I’ll never write #1: the role of the coffee shop in US fiction

The diner or coffee shop is a familiar venue with big significance in much contemporary American fiction. So here’s a book I’d like to write but never will: one looking at the reasons why diners play such a big role and what they are used to represent.

You could put a particular focus on American crime fiction, where the coffee shop is well used by the likes of George Pelecanos, Walter Mosley, Lawrence Bloc and the like, but they crop up in the likes of Paul Auster or Richard Ford too.

What role does the diner play?

From a plot point of view, the diner is a way for the protagonist to be alone in their thoughts, but also run into other people through which the plot can easily develop. But the diner is less about plot and more about themes.

First, these coffee places often represent the diversity of real-life America, where all kinds of people rub shoulders, no matter what colour or class. In Pelecanos’s Washington Quartet, in particular, it’s about a Greek diner run by Nick Stefanos and Costa, but it’s a multicultural place frequented by Greeks, Italians and African Americans. 

Second, they function as a public-private space: somewhere where everyone can feasibly go, where it’s independent, but in a typically American fashion it’s a private business. There’s a curious – perhaps curiously American – mix of individualism and community.

Third, it is often used to portray a kind of authentic working class America, where people are taking a break from hard work at all hours. Though in principle it could be men and women, in reality it’s often a very male and masculine environment, with women often just working in the place not a protagonist using it. In Stefanos’s diner the people are united by coffee, beer and food, but also by boxing and sports.

I guess that the cafe is used in different ways internationally: as a place of discussion in French literature, for example, or a site of freedom in Naguib Mafouz’s Egypt, which might make a nice point of contrast.

What would I call this book, that I’ll never write? Maybe The coffee spot: the role of the diner in contemporary American fiction.

The Skating Rink – Roberto Bolano

In Bolano’s characteristically terse prose this is a great short novel about love, murder and the transience of an individual’s life.

Told from the perspective of three different people, it gradually unravels a story in which a senior but pompous bureaucrat builds an ice rink in an abandoned building with public money for Nuria, a beautiful skater he’s besotted with; a subterfuge that works until a dead body is discovered and the scandal is exposed.

We get the story from the bureaucrat’s perspective (Enric Rosquelles), that of a local entrepreneur (Remo Moran) who has a brief relationship with Nuria and whose ex-wife Lola worked with the bureaucrat, and Gaspar Heredia, a Mexican poet living in a campsite in the town who knows Moran, the murder victim, and strikes up a relationship with the victim’s friend.

The ins and outs of the murder are secondary. Mostly the book is focused on the people and relationships around ice rink, the campsite and the town, known only as Z.

What comes across powerfully in the book is the randomness and transience of life. Stuff just happens. From an apparently successful political adviser, Enric finds himself stealing public money, in prison and then with a new life. Gaspar drifts to the campsite, meets countless other people who’s lives are temporarily on hold, like the murder victim, and rarely seems to have a clear sense of what’s happening around him. 

This becomes clear in part through the characters and their perspective, but more than anything it is Bolano’s style of writing, where this happens and then that and then that, a sequence of random or unexplained events that creates an atmosphere of existence’s purposelessness.