The most celebrated and controversial French novelist of our time now delivers his magnum opus—about art and money, love and friendship and death, fathers and sons.
The Map and the Territory is the story of an artist, Jed Martin, and his family and lovers and friends, the arc of his entire history rendered with sharp humor and powerful compassion. His earliest photographs, of countless industrial objects, were followed by a surprisingly successful series featuring Michelin road maps, which also happened to bring him the love of his life, Olga, a beautiful Russian working—for a time—in Paris. But global fame and fortune arrive when he turns to painting and produces a host of portraits that capture a wide range of professions, from the commonplace (the owner of a local bar) to the autobiographical (his father, an accomplished architect) and from the celebrated (Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology) to the literary (a writer named Houellebecq, with whom he develops an unusually close relationship).
Then, while his aging father (his only living relative) flirts with oblivion, a police inspector seeks Martin’s help in solving an unspeakably gruesome crime—events that prove profoundly unsettling. Even so, now growing old himself, Jed Martin somehow discovers serenity and manages to add another startling chapter to his artistic legacy, a deeply moving conclusion to this saga of hopes and losses and dreams.
In his partly satirical new novel (after The Possibility of an Island), Houellebecq takes on the contemporary art world and the role of the artist. The book follows the sensational career of Jed Martin, an emotionally stunted Parisian art photographer turned painter, as he navigates the slick machinery of the art market and fraught relationships with his workaholic father and a bombshell Russian. Art historians' assessments of Martin's work, dealing with industry and professions, are humorously invoked throughout; his work is characterized as "the product of a cold, detached reflection on the state of the world" a description that might be applied to Houellebecq's own oeuvre. Indeed, Houellebecq appears as a central character after he is hired to write a catalog essay for Martin's exhibition and the two become unlikely friends. The author's self-parody is deadpan funny, playing on his real literary world persona of a misanthropic recluse. But Houellebecq's presence grows tiresome, and with a surprising (if clumsy) plot twist, the book morphs into a grotesque police procedural. Houellebecq is most satisfying when he shines a hostile light on a late-capitalist Western culture sated by consumerism and shorn of meaning. For this reason, his take on the art world rings true, though the meditations on mortality and death are among the more compelling sections, in particular those dealing with Martin's father. Houellebecq mostly avoids the hedonistic shock that has earned him the enfant terrible reputation parodied herein, and despite the novel's self-conscious plot contrivances, it is a brilliantly astute work of social critique.
The Map and the Territory
I'm not sure what I just read, a book discovered mostly by chance, but it captivated me for awhile. It would be hard to tell anybody what it was about. An artist who has a kind of cold relationship with his father and a couple of affairs with women? His career is analyzed and there are a couple of discussions of art and architecture and then suddenly there's a gruesome crime drama centering around the author of the book with an epilogue speculating about life in the French countryside in the future. I wanted to get a sense of the current French psyche, and I think I did. I see no real similarities between this book/author and either D H Lawrence or William S Burroughs, as a New Yorker article stated, but I do like all three writers and will probably read another one of this guy's books some day.