The Map and the Territory, a novel by Michel Houellebecq, is a disjointed tale focusing on a French artist, Jed Martin, and his extraordinary success in the global art market.
Martin starts out modestly, the son of an architect whose wife had committed suicide when Martin was a child. He's appealing in the sense that he's modest. In a peculiar way, the whole novel is modest and somehow understated although it hinges on patience-testing spoofs of the art world's vagaries and is interrupted, toward the end, by something of a police procedural (in which Martin plays a key role.)
How do you make your first major statement photographing and exhibiting MIchelin maps? You need a novel like this to say you do. How do you get further along in your career photographing ordinary objects--made things--that we all have in our house: screws, desks, lamps, pill bottles? Again, it takes a novel like this to put that one over. Finally, Martin really makes it big painting mock heroic canvases that portray 21st century business titans as demi-gods, dividing up the world: Bill Gates, you take this part; Steve Jobs, you take that part.
Jed Martin finds all this surprising. It wasn't quite what he intended, to be so famous, so rich, to have such a fabulous Russian mistress. He seems most real on Christmas eve when he traditionally dines with his aging father, who isn't interested in him. Or when he listens to the cranky hot water heater in his flat, wondering if it's trying to tell him something.
Houellebecq, whom we are told on the dust jacket is "the most celebrated and controversial French novelist of our time," makes several appearances in this novel himself. He's portrayed as a drunken recluse, somewhat misanthropic, the least likely guy to write an essay for Martin's exhibition catalogue that vaults Martin into the Pantheon of French painters.
I told my wife what I was reading this weekend, and she said it sounded awful, why bother? I said I'd written something disparaging about Houllebecq once and felt I owed it to him to finish reading this novel…and to myself. I like to finish books and see if, in the end, there's some hidden value.
The value here is quite hidden. I'd put it this way: there is a Franco-German philosophical tradition that over the course of the 20th and now into the 21st century has emphasized the mystical dimension of the mundane. This deescalates "belief" from metaphysical belief (as in believing in a God) to accepting the reverberations of consciousness reflected off the existing physical world as a higher mystery in itself.
Basically, Martin stumbles through this terrain of thought in his photography and painting. He renders the inessential essential. He carries the flag first raised by DuChamp and later Warhol. He is used by Houellebecq for purposes of satire, but again, he's not an offensive fellow…wouldn't hurt a fly…it's not his fault that his publicist and gallerist are so effective…nor that the art world is desperate to find the final painter who can render the meaninglessness of meaning in stirring terms.
I know that for American readers I'm exploring terrain that is unnatural to us. We still have some kind of faith in the reality of things. Continental intellectuals don't.
There are passages in the novel wherein Houellebecq spends time describing a Samsung camera's instruction manual and the architectural feel of Shannon airport in Ireland. By the end of the book, Martin, in his viritual dotage, is photographing the innards of computer equipment dissolving in baths of corrosive acid (which he applies.) All the same, manuals and high-tech glop. Just as the new residents in an old village behave more or less exactly like the old residents, but with less surliness because they want to sell things to Chinese and Russian tourists (the old village residents wouldn't have known a Chinese tourist from the King of Saudi Arabia…or cared).
Houellebecq has the good taste to have himself brutally murdered in this novel, and he also, as I've indicated, has an ability to focus on the quieter moments of existence, the ones we all drift through, up to and including those utterly silent seconds enveloping death itself.
If you don't know the philosophical background against which he is writing--the utter relativism and disbelief that makes an avant-garde French novelist tick (and there have been similar ones before him: think Robbes-Grillet)--Houellebecq is apt to make you pity the French.
If you do know that background, where everything is demystified and cyberized, lasting and evanescent, only as real as it is fake, this is something of a witty book.
The problem, as a novel, really comes in the later sections where a meditation on the arts becomes a kind of police procedural. We're reasonably pleased to see Houellebecq brutalized, but the truth is that the brutalizer was an accident richocetting off another narrative accident.
I think back on my friend of yore, the Spanish novelist Juan Benet, who urged me not to read his novels because they were so terribly, terribly boring. But of course I read one, and he was right.
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