The Map and the Territory

By Michel Houellebecq

Translated from the French by Gavin Browd

Alfred A. Knopf. 288 pp. $26.95

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Reviewed by Frank Wilson


In 2010, Michel Houellebecq's

The Map and the Territory

won the Prix Goncourt, France's prize for "the best and most imaginative prose work of the year."

Well, his novel is certainly imaginative enough. You may think that an award-winning French novel would be cerebral and static, long on description and even longer on introspection, but The Map and the Territory is neither, and actually serves up along its ambling way quite a few laughs.

It is the life story of Jed Martin, a kind of postmodern Candide. Jed's father started out as a serious architect, but ended up using his talent to make a fortune building resorts. Jed's mother committed suicide just days before her son's seventh birthday. Jed scarcely remembers her.

At first, Jed's father tries to be a dutiful parent, but he finally packs his kid off to a Jesuit boarding school, where "he didn't have a single close friend, and didn't seek the friendship of others. Instead, he spent afternoons in the library, and at the age of eighteen . . . had an extensive knowledge, unusual among the young people of his generation, of the literary heritage of mankind. . . . Even more surprising, he was familiar with the main dogmas of the Catholic faith, whose mark on Western culture had been so profound."

Jed gains admission to the Beaux-Arts on the basis of an application titled "Three Hundred Photos of Hardware," and after graduation earns his living for a time photographing such things as "a Western Digital multimedia hard disk." That is, in fact, the last such object he shoots. That's because, on his way to his grandmother's funeral, he has an aesthetic epiphany upon opening a Michelin Departments road map:

Overcome, he began to tremble . . . . Never had he contemplated an object as magnificent, as rich in emotion and meaning, as this 1/150,000-scale Michelin map of the Creuse and the Haute-Vienne. . . . The drawing was complex and beautiful, absolutely clear, using only a small palette of colors. But in each of the hamlets and villages represented according to their importance, you felt the thrill, the appeal, of human lives, of dozens and hundreds of souls - some destined for damnation, others for eternal life.

Jed photographs the maps using "a very low camera angle, at thirty degrees from the horizontal, while setting the tilt to the maximum in order to obtain a very high depth of field." Then, using Photoshop, he "introduced the background blurring and the bluish effects on the horizon." The result is that "the roads winding through the forest between the villages . . . appeared like a dream territory, fairylike and inviolable."

Jed accepts an invitation to place his works in a group show, and they prove to be a hit. Michelin takes him under its wing, and he meets the beautiful Olga, one of Michelin's PR people. The two become lovers and Olga makes sure to take him with her to openings, premieres, and cocktail parties. Houellebecq's take on the art scene is not exactly flattering:

[Jed] rapidly assimilated the appropriate behavior. It wasn't obligatory to be brilliant, and was actually best most often to say nothing at all, even if it was indispensable to listen to your interlocutor with seriousness and empathy, relaunching the conversation with a "Really?" meant to register interest and surprise, or a "That's for sure" colored with understanding and approval.

Olga would probably have been the love of his life had Jed not been so peculiarly detached and passive. When she is transferred to Michelin's Russian office, "something inside him understood that they were living a moment of mortal sadness." And indeed, after her departure, he realizes that "he had just, almost unknowingly, entered a new stage in the course of his life. He understood this because everything that . . . had constituted his world suddenly seemed completely empty to him."

He destroys all of the Michelin map photos in his studio ands turns to painting, beginning a sequence that comes to be known as "The Series of Simple Professions," featuring the paintings Ferdinand Desroches, Horse Butcher and Claude Vorilhon, Bar-Tabac Manager. Eventually, he will paint his father entering retirement - The Architect Jean-Pierre Martin Leaving the Management of His Business - though perhaps his most famous work will be Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology.

He meets an eccentric gallery owner, who offers him a show, and who suggests he get some noted writer to do the introduction to the catalog. The author he decides on is none other than Michel Houellebecq, and he flies to Ireland to meet "the author of The Elementary Particles."

Houellebecq's self-portrait in these pages is anything but flattering: "It was public knowledge that Houellebecq was a loner with strong misanthropic tendencies: it was rare for him even to say a word to his dog." Then there's this: "Houellebecq nodded, opening his arms as if he were entering a tantric dance; he was, more probably, drunk, and trying to keep his balance on the kitchen stool where he'd crouched."

In their different ways, though, author and protagonist hit it off. Later, Jed will wonder, "Was he experiencing a feeling of friendship for Houellebecq? . . . Jed didn't think he was capable of such a feeling: he had gone through childhood and the start of adolescence without falling prey to strong friendships . . . . It was scarcely possible that friendship would come to him now, late in life."

Jed's show, featuring Michel Houellebecq, Writer, is an immense success. It makes Jed a millionaire, in fact. But the portrait, Jed's 65th painting, turns out also to be his last. It is also the decisive clue in solving the gruesome murder that the third and final part of the novel opens with.

The Map and The Territory is not a particularly long novel, but it is jam-packed with incidents and characters, information and reflection. By the end, which takes place a couple of decades from now, Europe seems to have turned itself into a sort of living museum, and Jed is a legendary artist. As for Houellebecq - well, you'll have to read the book to find out what happens to him. Rest assured it's not what you'd expect. This work of fiction really is original.

Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer books editor. Visit his blog, "Books, Inq.-The Epilogue." E-mail him at presterfrank@gmail.com.