The Weight of the Past, Part 3

Patrick Melrose is a swashbuckling action hero compared to Jed Martin, the narrative hinge of Michel Houellebecq’s prize-winning new novel, The Map and the Territory (translation 2011).  Jed—it’s difficult to call him “Martin” because he is so child-like, so small, frail, and innocent—becomes a famous visual artist by accident, by meticulously photographing industrial objects, then Michelin maps, and finally painting the craftsmen of post-industrial society (the crowning achievement here is a tableau of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs together in Palo Alto, backlit by the setting sun).  “Jed couldn’t remember ever buying a newspaper or a magazine.  He liked television, especially in the morning.”  This innocent is called “Martin” only once, by “Michel Houllebecq,” the novel’s main character, in paraphrasing the author’s catalog copy for the artist’s second big gallery exhibition.

The once-sprawling world of the modern novel is finally reduced to the scope of the market—the territory to the map: “Thus free-market economics redrew the geography of the world.”  The space of civil society shrinks to the mere exchange of equivalents between bearers of commodities: here, too, the world is “miniaturized,” but in a very different manner than in St. Aubyn’s fiction and Gornick’s memoir, where no one can distinguish between the family and the larger society.  Patrick Melrose can’t escape his own father’s inexplicable cruelty.  Jed Martin, the artist, is “singled out” by market forces, “by the law of supply and demand” (the last phrase originally rendered in and italicized as English for obvious effect)—he becomes a consumer good.  Either way, the social terrain of the novel is reduced to a mere fragment of its former scope, and yet the weight of the past increases accordingly.

Jed is—he never becomes anything by his own volition—no less an object than any of his subjects.  It’s only toward the end of the novel proper, before the inexplicable Tom Sawyer-like Part 3, where Houellebecq introduces a whole new cast of characters and kills “himself” off in a grisly homage to Jackson Pollack, that Jed has an epiphany of sorts, and through it he realizes, like Hegel’s Master, that it is only the Slave who is both in and of this world: “The wealth that had suddenly enveloped him like a rain of sparks had delivered him from any financial yoke, and he realized that he was now going to leave a world he’d never been genuinely a part of.  His human relations, already few, would one by one dry up and disappear, and he would be in life like he was at present in the perfectly finished interior of his Audi A6 allroad: peaceful and joyless, completely neutral.”

Otherwise this “character” never does anything by choice except visit his father in a nursing home and talk to “Michel Houellebecq,” to whom he’s been directed by his agent and gallerist, the man who explains that “we’re at a point where success in market terms justifies and validates anything, replacing all the theories.”  It’s true, in Part 3, Jed does assault the woman who explains that his father’s euthanasia went “perfectly normally.”  But this, too, reads like a physical reflex, not a conscious choice—like the art work he executes, it happens to Jed, not because of him (what was the motive?), and it’s nowhere near convincing.  And like the whole of Part 3, it’s an afterthought.  Nothing can be chosen because all the choices have already been made: “It’s impossible to write a novel, Houllebecq had told him the day before, for the same reason that it’s impossible to live: due to accumulated inertia.”

Patrick Melrose would understand “Houllebecq”’s calm resignation—it’s too matter-of- fact to be despair—particularly the irony of its syntactical location within a novel written by Michel Houellbecq.  The second novel in the cycle, Bad News, begins with Patrick’s trip to New York to collect his father’s remains.  The impossibility of living by remembering this past soon overtakes him.  “It was intolerable: his father’s death had cheated him again.  The bastard had deprived him of the chance to transform his ancient terror and his unwilling admiration into contemptuous pity . . . And yet Patrick found himself sucked toward his father’s death by a stronger habit of emulation than he could reasonably bear.  Death was always, of course, a temptation; but now it seemed like a temptation to obey.” (143)

The rest of the novel is a harrowing and hilarious voyage into the extremities of Manhattan as it was in the 1980s, scoring speed, downers, smack, whatever, and wherever, from Central Park to the East Village, interrupted from time to time by energetic asides worthy of Herman Melville in the crow’s nest of his floating factory, scanning a flat metaphysical horizon for answers to ancient questions: “This needle fever had a psychological life of its own.  What better way to be at once the fucker and the fucked, the subject and the object, the scientist and the experiment, trying to set the spirit free by enslaving the body?”

And the answer? There is none: there is no better way.  “What other form of self-division was more expressive than the androgynous embrace of an injection, one arm locking the needle into the other, enlisting pain into the service of pleasure and forcing pleasure back into the service of pain?” (273)

“Will you seek far off?  Surely you come back at last”  That’s Walt Whitman in “Song for Occupations,” singing the anti-metaphysical lullaby that a famous philosopher later characterized by saying that this poet “abolishes all human distinctions,” including those that oppose subject and object, self and Other, fucker and fucked.  Like that philosopher (yes, of course it’s William James), I think Whitman is a reading cure for what ails us: he goes Melville one better.  But still.  Come back to what?  Are we always borne back, boats against the current, to a past that can’t even be remembered?  What is it we must return to?

The third novel in the cycle, Some Hope, begins with a lyrical reprise of the Bad News opening.  Patrick has kicked heroin by this time, but he hasn’t kicked the habit of stabbing himself with fevered memories: he still knows that it’s impossible to live because the weight of the past—“Houllebecq”’s inertia—is just too much to bear.  “’I want to die, I want to die, I want to die,’ he found himself muttering in the middle of the most ordinary task, swept away by a landslide of regret as the kettle boiled or the toast popped up.  At the same time, his past lay before him like a corpse waiting to be embalmed. . . . Worst of all, as his struggle against drugs grew more successful, he saw how it masked a struggle not to become like his father.  . . . The memory of his father still hypnotized him and drew him like a sleepwalker towards a precipice of emulation.” (305)

But something happens: Patrick learns to live.  The primal scene is a conversation over dinner with his old friend Johnny, another addict who has somehow become a shrink.  It begins like this.  “How could he tell anyone?  But if he told no one, he would stay endlessly isolated and divided against himself.  He knew that under the tall grass of an apparently untamed future the steel rails of fear and habit were already laid.  What he suddenly couldn’t bear, with every cell in his body, was to act out the destiny prepared for him by his past, and slide obediently along those rails, contemplating bitterly all the routes he would rather have taken.  But which words could he use?” (366)

The possibility of the words—the confession, the truth of the matter—comes to him as he looks in the mirror of his hotel bathroom, getting ready for dinner with Johnny. “’Be absolute for death,’ a strange phrase from Measure for Measure, returned to him while he bared his teeth to rip open a sachet of bath gel.  Perhaps there was something to this half-shallow, half-profound idea that one had to despair of life in order to grasp its real value.”

The questions that follow let him find the words he needs to tell Johnny his terrible secret: “What was the thread that held together the scattered beads of experience if not the pressure of interpretation? . . . Impressions that were too fleeting to be called stories yielded no meaning. . . . What could he do but accept the disturbing extent to which memory was fictional and hope that the fiction lay at the service of a truth less richly represented by the original facts?”  (358, 359-60)

The accumulated inertia that makes life impossible can now become momentum—the weight of the past can been lifted—because the past as such no longer feels like a closed system: it’s not even over.  Some hope for Patrick, his and ours, comes of the simple fact that past events are significant not because they happened in the past, but because they now appear as moments in a meaningful sequence—that is, a story he can retell.

 

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