Admittedly, I knew very little about Michel Houellebecq (pronounced “well-beck”) before I read this novel. I knew he was the main inspiration for Iggy Pop’s underrated 2009 album Preliminaires. I knew he has been criticized for being an intense misogynist and racist. But then again, so was Henry Miller, so I let that slide. I heard of his writing being particularly vulgar, solipsistic, but nonetheless brilliant. At the center of The Map and the Territory is Jed Martin, an artist in the present day. Despite a few throwaway thoughts of a wandering mind, Martin doesn’t seem to carry any of the characteristic tendencies of a Houellebecqian main character, but rather offers a more introverted and reflective presence. Martin is rather cold and distant, but not entirely outside of society. He does live in Paris after all, but he carries the defeatist and fatalistic outlook akin to Camus’ Mersault. “They don’t really amount to much, anyway, human relationships,” he thinks to himself while having Christmas dinner with his father.
When Jed was on his way to the funeral of his grandmother, he was struck by a new artistic inspiration, not in the form of any existential crisis or questions of meaning often associated with the death of a loved one (or at the least of a relation), but rather with the sublimity of a simple Michelin road map. He launches an exhibition of photographs of these maps and serendipitously acquaints himself with a beautiful Russian woman who works for the company. They begin a romantic relationship, as well as a commercial one, and Martin’s stock as an artist rises. Eventually, his gallerist suggests he contact a writer named Michel Houellebecq to write the catalog for his newest exhibition. The narrative tactic of an author placing himself in the story has become a bit trendy over the past few years and perhaps that is why Houellebecq decided to do it, almost mocking the connection of author and story. He doesn’t paint a positive picture of himself, as an alcoholic recluse in Ireland. But Martin and him become quick friends, surprising considering both of their isolationist tendencies.
A major theme of the novel is not just the acceptance of mortality, but the anticipation of one’s own death. This becomes abundantly clear when Jed’s father develops cancer and they have the most open and honest conversation of their lives during their annual Christmas dinner. Further, Houellebecq drives the point home with the third part of the novel involving a murder, of which the biggest concern for Detective Jasselin is what the biggest criminal motivation is: sex or money? This is the third in a set of conflicting, albeit not complete opposite dynamics as shown previously with art and love (the latter being fleeting in Jed’s eyes), and fathers and sons.
What doesn’t show itself entirely clear but is something to consider is the implications of the title of the novel. The quote that inspired it is “the map is not the territory,” the meaning of which can be likened to Magritte’s painting of a pipe with the text “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“this is not a pipe”). While the representation may have similarities with the object it is meant to represent, it does not encapsulate entirely what the thing is. The title of the Martin’s map exhibit is “The map is more interesting than the territory.” It doesn’t seem too much of an extrapolation (although Houellebecq never mentions this explicitly) to apply this train of thought to those of us who are always “connected.” Certainly by this point in life, if you haven’t been criticized by someone for updating a status, tweeting, or posting a picture of something while you’re doing it, you’ve done the criticizing yourself. Our culture (and apparently the global one at that) has become plugged in to the point of ignoring objects while embracing the representation of those objects ignored. This view is often lamented as the demise of [language / experience / relationships] but the title of this exhibition says otherwise, that perhaps the abstract is actually more meaningful than the concrete.
Fiction is a simulacrum of reality. The sequence of events in this or any work of fiction never happened, even if parts of it may have been inspired by empirical reality. Therefore, stories are just a representation of reality and in which we find just as much, if not more, truth in. Because if we didn’t, I would have no reason to review this novel. And you would have no reason to be reading it. I would be writing about current events and what not. Alas, here I am, wrapping up this review, more enveloped in a representation than the objects that surround me outside this 269 page exploration into a fabricated world, of which I know never happened, but still commit energy and time to deconstructing. Houellebecq (the author) offers honesty and imagination. We have to wonder why he inserts Houellebecq (the character) into the novel, and what the relationship between the two of them are, the map to his territory.
Andrew Hertzberg is a Chicago music blogger for Windy City Rock, a deep dish pizza slinger, and a night-time bike riding enthusiast. This is his first book review for Frontier Psychiatrist.