Has Michel Houellebecq mellowed? The French novelist whose earlier works could strip paint with their scathing social commentary, explicit sex and crushing gloom takes up a brush instead in The Map and the Territory to paint a muted and glowing portrait of an artist.
Set mostly in the near future of around 2015, the novel follows the career of Jed Martin, a motherless, delicate and isolated French painter who makes his name, and the beginnings of his fortune, when he hits on the idea of photographing Michelin road maps. As the title of his exhibit explains, "The map is more interesting than the territory." For Martin, beauty in art is secondary, although his photographs are hailed as such. Most important, he says, "I want to give an account of the world."
That has also been Houellebecq's work as a novelist, so when Martin needs text for an exhibition catalog, who better to turn to than … Michel Houellebecq? The author winks from beyond the page when his fictional double first appears to modest praise from Martin's father: "He's a good author, it seems to me. He's pleasant to read, and he has quite an accurate view of society."
But it's not all bouquets. At a meeting with Martin, the novelist "stank a little, but less than a corpse" and "looked like a sick old turtle." Houellebecq complains that his life has become "one endless scratching session" because of his athlete's foot. "I'm rotting on the spot and no one gives a damn."
What could have been a gimmick is instead one of the most endearing aspects of this fascinating novel. Houellebecq and Martin become, as much as two isolated people can, friends. To pay him for the text, Martin paints a portrait of Houellebecq with wild voodoo eyes. It will eventually be worth 12 million euros.
Over the course of the novel the author sticks his nose into all kinds of subjects, from architecture, police work, bichons frises, gastronomy and the Pre-Raphaelites to euthanasia, consumerism (an "endless wandering between eternally modified product lines"), Audis and video equipment.
And Houellebecq hasn't lost his touch with the one-liner. Martin finds one of his subjects as difficult to capture "as a Mormon pornographer." A restaurant's discreet waiters "operated in silence, as if in a burn unit." Houellebecq himself (the fictional one) dismisses Picasso's work as "priapic daubing."
In a previous novel, Houellebecq wrote: "Anything can happen in life, especially nothing." In this one, he writes: "It doesn't amount to much, generally speaking, a human life."
Houellebecq's world is a gloomy old place, for sure, but there's a measure of joy to be had in picking it apart and examining the pieces.