“You know,” remarks a character in Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory, “it’s the journalists who’ve given me the reputation for being a drunk; what’s curious is that none of them ever realized that if I was drinking a lot in their presence, it was simply in order to put up with them.”
A passing familiarity with Houellebecq the media figure, a man described variously as an enfant terrible, an agent provocateur, an Islamophobe, a misogynist, a pornographer, an egomaniac, and a sad sack, will give away the surprise: The speaker is Houellebecq himself, in conversation with an enormously successful French photographer and painter named Jed Martin. Martin, the novel’s true subject, has enlisted Houellebecq to write a catalogue essay. During their first meeting, Martin interrupts Houellebecq’s desultory tangent about Thai brothels by saying, “I have the slight impression you’re playing your own role.” Houellebecq brightens. He couldn’t, it turns out, agree more.
It is both a pleasure and a relief to find Houellebecq having such fun with himself and his public persona. The critics, and this one is no exception, have perhaps been too quick to see a pessimist or nihilist, whose inflammatory outburts and despairing outlook are as much an apparatus of self-promotion as they are symptoms of philosophical laziness. He is a wealthy tax exile and winner of the 2010 Prix Goncourt (for this novel), but in Public Enemies, a book of his correspondence with the gadfly Bernard Henri-Lévy, he gives voice to almost comical delusions of persecution. He is indeed well-disliked by many, but he brings it upon himself. Behind this puzzling self-caricature and calculated contempt is a mind hard at work.
The Map and the Territory is the first of Houellebecq’s books to give serious treatment to characters not modeled on the author. Jed Martin’s progress as an artist is traced from childhood, when his drawings of flowers meet the bemused approval of his babysitter: “Little boys draw bloodthirsty monsters, Nazi insignia, and fighter planes…rarely flowers.” Just before his seventh birthday, his mother kills herself, a barbed parallel with Houellebecq’s own abandonment by his mother, Lucie Ceccaldi. At the Beaux-Arts de Paris, Martin takes up photography, applying himself to the “systematic photography of the world’s manufactured objects…. Suspension files, handguns, diaries, printer cartridges, forks…an exhaustive catalogue of the objects of human manufacturing in the Industrial Age.”
Martin is a reader, and an avid student of Catholicism’s influence on Western culture, while “his contemporaries generally knew more about the life of Spider-Man than of Jesus.” Yet, as he tells a journalist late in life — the narrative perspective here is something like an art-critical biography — he wants “simply to give an account of the world.” He has a monkish disregard for friendship or any other human connection. His only romantic relationship, with a beautiful Russian woman named Olga, begins by accident (“The image of the virile brute who is good in bed had been coming back in force lately…. Such a situation did not really put Jed at an advantage”). He has been making photographic enlargements of old Michelin maps, and she is a Michelin PR executive who has been tasked by the company with, for lack of a better phrase, co-opting his work.
The market’s corrupting effect on human and, in particular, sexual relationships has long been Houellebecq’s major theme. The story of Martin’s rise to fame and fortune is, similarly, a satire of the art world and of the market’s corrupting effect on the creative impulse and its fruits. In his late career, Martin returns to figurative painting, producing a celebrated series about professions, e.g., The Journalist Jean-Pierre Pernaut Chairing an Editorial Meeting; Claude Vorilhon, Bar-Tabac Manager (Vorilhon is the leader of the much-mocked Raëlian cult, which inspired Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island); Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology, and the unfinished Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market.
Yet, buried in this deft dissection of the artistic life is an unexpected, oblique meditation on death. One of Houellebecq’s most affectingly drawn characters is Martin’s dying father, a former architect with whom he takes Christmas dinner each year. Martin insists on cuisine à l’ancienne, a phrase and theme which recurs in unexpected places. We find him at a funeral à l’ancienne, one “which didn’t attempt to dodge the reality of death.” At other funerals, the artist had been “shocked that some of those present hadn’t bothered to switch off their cell phones before the moment of the cremation.”
Martin recalls a Malagasy burial practice he learned about from a former lover. “One week after the death, the corpse was dug up, the shroud was undone, and a meal was eaten in its presence…then it was buried again. This was repeated after a month, then after three….” Much later, when the character Houellebecq is gruesomely murdered (decapitated, in fact, as is his dog) and Martin is consulted by the police, an investigator recalls a time when, “feeling that he was beginning to have difficulty bearing crime scenes, he had gone to the Buddhist Center of Vincennes to ask them if it would be possible for him to practice asubha, the meditation on the corpse. The lama had at first tried to dissuade him: this meditation, he had opined, was difficult, and not adapted to the Western mentality….”
The investigator’s bewilderment in the face of evil — all crimes, he believes, come down to sex or money, and he is vindicated vis-à-vis the Houellebecq case — has much in common with the author’s disillusionment with and disappointment in human existence. But it is Martin’s relationship with his father, whom cancer has forced to suffer the indignity of an artificial anus, that makes The Map and the Territory a great achievement. In a moment of moribund free-association, Martin’s father, the subject of The Architect Jean-Pierre Martin Leaving the Management of His Business, breaks down recalling a nest he once built for some swallows: “They never wanted to use my nest. Never.”
Martin interrupts: “Swallows never use a nest built by human hand…. If a man so much as touches their nest, they leave it to build a new one.” It’s a lie: He’s made up this factoid off the top of his head to reassure the old man. “His father had just relived, for the last time, the hopes and failures that formed the story of his life. It doesn’t amount to much, generally speaking, a human life.” This is no sentimental or cynical power play on the author’s part. Like Jed Martin, Houellebecq, for all his bad-boy trappings, has only ever wanted to depict life as he believes it is. This is not to say he never wanted it to be otherwise, and that has never been clearer than in The Map and the Territory. Indeed, he has arrived here at something like a pacific acceptance of mankind’s — to put it mildly — imperfect lot. “There was in the voice of the author of The Elementary Particles something that Jed had never noticed before, that he’d never expected to find, and that he took some time to identify, because basically he hadn’t found it in anyone, for many years: he seemed happy.” Put another way: Houellbecq is dead — long live Houellebecq.