Michel Houellebecq has been hailed as the most important French-language writer since Albert Camus. He has also been dismissed as an overhyped, sex-obsessed hack. As if to preclude debate—or to fan it—his newest novel, “The Map and the Territory”, won France’s most prestigious literary award in 2010, the Prix Goncourt.

The novel, a translation of which is out in Britain and released this week in America, is ostensibly the story of Jed Martin, a minor artist who spends his time taking photographs of industrial objects. Mostly indifferent to success, he nevertheless meets fame and fortune after an exhibition of enlarged photographs of Michelin maps. Jed dismisses most of the perks, but embraces a new friendship with a certain famous French writer named Michel Houellebecq, whose enigmatic presence attracts him.

What proceeds is part “whodunit” crime novel and part character study with all the features one expects of a Houellebecq book—crass humour, capitalist ennui, and dissolution of both the material and the mental variety. What isn’t here is the sense of provocation evident in his earlier work—the gratuitous attacks on religion, the explicit sex. Mr Houellebecq’s fame and notoriety stem in large part from two of his earlier novels: “The Elementary Particles”, which pillories the narcissism of the 1960s countercultural revolution, and “Platform”, which argues the case for sex tourism and depicts a violent terrorism attack pre-9/11.

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