An Extreme Act of Self Criticism


Title: The Map and the Territory

Rating: 2 Stars

When I was at a London bookstore, I tried to find a couple of books that I would have trouble finding in the US. One of the books that I chose was by a Swedish author; it turned out that my cube mate’s partner had the book on her shelf ready to read. So, kind of a failure there.

I seemed to have better success with The Map and the Territory. I don’t know anyone who is reading it or has even heard of the author, Michel Houellebecq.

Unbeknownst to me, Houellebecq is kind of an enfant terrible of the French literary scene. He writes controversial novels and one of his literary tours ended with accusations of racism. At one point, to escape the controversy, he moved to Ireland.

This story centers around an artist named Jed Martin. He’s not terribly sophisticated, he latches onto an idea, explores it until he achieves success, at which point he abandons it and moves on to his next project, which can take many years of isolation to come to fruition.

During this time, he has difficulties reconciling with his very business-like, practical father and a love affair with a beautiful Russian named Olga.

Right at the point where he’s beginning to lose his relevance as an artist, he embarks on a new series of paintings representing ordinary people at mundane jobs. As part of the project, he asks the famous author, Michel Houellebecq, to write the program for the exhibit. In doing so, Houellebecq becomes a character in the very book that he’s writing. In it, he does not come off well. He’s irritable, drunk, and anti-social.

The exhibition, with some credit going to Houellebecq’s brilliant writing, becomes a huge success, and Martin becomes a fabulously wealthy man, which seems to change him not in the slightest.

At the point where Martin becomes a huge success, there is a sudden change in the plot. Houellebecq is brutally murdered. The story then morphs to a police procedural, in which ultimately Martin plays a part in resolving.

So, what to think of it? It’s tough. It is amusing. Although I don’t know the French art scene, Houellebecq takes clear pleasure in skewering it. The author introducing himself as a character in his own novel and then being brutally murdered midway through it is certainly an amusing diversion, and possibly, especially considering the nature of his murder, a meditation on the role of the artist, his work, and the commercialization of his work.

However, at the end of the day, Jed Martin is just a cipher. He seems to have no opinions and really doesn’t seem to express many emotions. Again, perhaps that’s the point. An artist exists on a different plane, so such feelings might have no meaning. Or maybe, again, Houellebecq is mocking the artistic scene by constructing an artist that becomes so celebrated but ultimately really has nothing to say. By being an empty vessel, this allows critics and patrons to fill his art with meaning that he himself does not provide.

I don’t know. In any case, Martin was just not an interesting character to me. Being central to the book, this lack of engagement made it a difficult and challenging read for me. Again, maybe that was the point.

If so, well done!



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