Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory is an oddly gripping story about an artist, Jed Martin, who allows life, love, inspiration, acclaim and skyrocketing market value to come to him. His is an unintentionally Zen existence; he remains detached from competition, much of the art world, the mundane irritations of daily living and even the day’s news. Martin meets the love of his life, Olga, when she is working in Paris for the Michelin company. At the time, Martin is making photographs of Michelin maps and an exhibition that Olga helps to arrange puts him on the map and lands him a gallery. When Olga is transferred to Russia, Martin stays in Paris.
His mother’s suicide when he was young, his renowned architect father’s preoccupation with his work, his own ambivalence about pursuing anything—or anyone—instill in him a habit of silence and solitude that enhances his artistic reputation. Martin spends long years developing new directions for his art and then reveals a body of work when he has exhausted the medium. He progresses from photographs of industrial objects to photographs of road maps to painted portraits of people who typify professions. Subjects of the portraits that cause a sensation and boost prices for his work range from a prostitute to Martin’s father on the eve of his retirement from his successful architecture firm to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs discussing the future of technology to a reclusive famous writer—named Michel Houellebecq—whom Martin engages to write program notes for an exhibit, paints for his final portrait in the series, and attempts to befriend as a fellow seeker of truth and artistic mentor.
The real Houellebecq traces the arc of Martin’s life as fame overtakes him. The artist remains impassive, noting each time an event or a relationship comes to an end for him that this will be the last time he paints a portrait, sees a lover, speaks to his father, visits a friend. Occasionally he relapses into art making. More often he gets lost in his own thinking. One day he is enlisted by the police to help solve a gruesome and baffling crime—and this only adds to his wealth, his isolation and his mystique.
The Map and the Territory is a wonderful novel–it won the 2010 Prix Goncourt and a raft of enthusiastic reviews. I hated to put it aside when real life interfered and I was fascinated by Jed Martin and his search for meaning. The descriptions of places and people are beautifully rendered, the humor is intelligent, the skewering of society is performed by a master. This book was a pure pleasure to read in a day—I wish all of the books I encountered reached the level of Houellebecq’s and I will search out more of his work in hopes that it is all this good.
The Map and the Territory Michel Houellebecq | Alred A. Knopf 2012