Book Review : Michel Houellebecq - The Map and the Territory (2010)
In many ways, Michel Houellebecq is a stereotype. He’s an old and curmudgeonly white intellectual who writes novels and says controversial shit for a living. He’s pretty much what you’d think a French author should be if you’re not French and experienced them only though your own cultural perspective. But Houellebecq is different from other French authors because he’s considerably better at his job than most of them. His novel are not meant to straightforwardly entertain. They foster an intense metaphysical conversation with his audience that always leaves you feeling like you’ve experienced something real.
That power can be felt perhaps best in his award-winning novel The Map and the Territory, where the author takes you on a one-way trip through his byzantine mind.
On a surface level, The Map and the Territory tells the story of Jed Martin, a young photographer turned painter, who becomes famous for a photo exhibit of Michelin road maps. He’s also the son of a renowned architect who’s struggling to adapt to retirement. The more successful Jed becomes professionally, the looser and more disorganized his personal life becomes. He comes to crossroads one day when his exhibit gallery owner suggests that he’d get his new painting exhibit catalog written by the hottest author in France Michel Houellebecq. Both men will influence one another’s fate in ways that will make your nose bleed.
There’s a lot to unpack here.
First, Houellebecq’s seemingly bizarre decision of writing himself into his own novel. And his fictional self isn’t even the protagonist either. So, why would he even do that, right? Fictional Houellebecq is not the only Houellebecq in The Map and the Territory. Jed Martin and to a certain extent Jed’ father Jean-Pierre are also representations of the author at different eras of his life. His past, present and hypothetical future selves interact inside his dreamscape France. All three characters are blissfully unaware of this, which makes their conversations even more truthful and poignant. They see themselves in one another like you see yourself in someone you love. No more, no less.
Before you stop me: I’m not pulling that out of my ass. Jed Martin is a young artist with a creative vision that mirrors the author’s. He’s not an entertainer. He comments on reality by giving it an aesthetic context. Whether it’s through photographing a pragmatic object people never stopped to actually look at or by painting important socioeconomic figures living a moment he and he alone invented or conceptualized, Jed reappropriates reality through his creativity and it’s exactly what Michel Houellebecq does in his novels. And he makes sure to get his point across by hilariously providing himself the criticism for Martin’s own work.
But there’s also Jean-Pierre, who represents success seen through the rear-view mirror. Who structured his entire life around the pursuit of financial comfort and professional renown. Both leaving him feeling hollow and useless now that he doesn’t “contribute” anymore. If Jed and Jean-Pierre’s banal father-son conversations are so moving, it’s because they serve as a grim cautionary tale for a young artist looking for validation through the eyes of others. Left without any path forward after retirement, Jean-Pierre can only rekindle his passion for architecture through discussions with his son. Jed and Jean-Pierre’s relationship is the most powerful argument I’ve ever read for the virtues of selfishness.
The Map and the Territory is easily one of my top 10 favorite novels ever. It’s gracefully written, vulnerable and flexible enough for readers to find their place into it. Michel Houellebecq explores the most intimate corners of his mind, but the topic he explores are universal enough to appeal to any artistic-minded or intellectual person who is fortunate enough to come across his novel. I haven’t discussed it here because many, many reviewers did before me, but it’s also extremely funny and satirical of the art world in general. Perhaps you need to know Houellebecq a little before going it, but perhaps you don’t. I’ll leave it up to you. But The Map and the Territory is what literature should always be: an intellectual and emotional journey.