Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory is a page-turning novel concerned with the making of art, the difficulty of forging meaningful relationships, the challenges of living within a globalized commercial economy, and the inevitability of individual decline.
Jed Martin is an artist who works and lives in resigned isolation. His enhanced photographs of Michelin road maps lead him into the arms of Russian beauty Olga (who works for Michelin) and unexpected success. But his indecisiveness at a crucial moment has serious consequences for both his love life and his art, plunging him into an aimless existence until a chance encounter prompts him to return to his childhood love of painting. This leads to his next big successful project: capturing on canvas the spirit of a wide range of professions, to which he gives titles such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology.
Jed does not believe in authentic friendship and is a borderline misanthrope, but nevertheless he finds a brief and quiet rapport with a writer (yes, named Michel Houellebecq) before the story turns grisly in the last part of the book. Another plot thread involves Jed’s father, who is dying of cancer, and the tentative attempts of son and father to mend their strained and distant relationship.
The thoughts of Houellebecq’s major characters reveal a great deal of cynicism, which can be a bit unnerving. His previous novels have stirred up some controversy in France, and from what I’ve heard I’m not sure I’d care for them. But reviews of The Map and the Territory indicate a shift in subject matter and a less severe tone, which convinced me to give the book a try. I am very glad that I did – this may be the best new book I’ve read this year – but readers should be prepared for some dark and unflinching observations.
The best parts of the book for me are the insights into art, culture, and society that pour from the pages in powerful though often understated ways; and characters who are realistic, flawed, but sympathetic in their forthrightness and vulnerability. There is some very fine writing here, and the book should especially appeal to those who’ve read and enjoyed any of the latest novels by Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides or the late David Foster Wallace. If this sounds like you, take a look at The Map and the Territory.
And while you’re at it, grab Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia, another compelling though locally neglected novel (based on EPL circulation statistics) that also addresses the making of art, relationships, mortality, and the culture industry.