In the squib by his publisher, Michel Houellebecq is touted as "the most celebrated and controversial French novelist of our time." French literature has had its share of celebrated and controversial writers. Some were sham intellectuals and others piercing thinkers.
To highlight the difference, one of Houellebecq's characters says, "All the theories of freedom, from Gide to Sartre, are just immoralisms thought up by irresponsible bachelors."
In "The Map and the Territory," Houellebecq seems to have set both feet in the immoralist camp. His is a somewhat softened yet decadent view of the world: "a dividing up; on the one hand, fun, sex, kitsch, and innocence; on the other, trash, death and cynicism." His earlier work was more harsh.
Some of Houellebecq's earlier novels, "The Elementary Particles" and "Platform," were thought so rank that one critic at the New York Times objected to reviewing them. Through it all, the author's public persona has been one of not caring what critics think. With his latest book, I think pressure has been put upon him to clean up his act. As a result "The Map" is an easy if immoral read, not without sparks of intelligence, like fireworks on an otherwise dark night.
"The Map" is a novel of ideas about art, architecture, food, patria and sex from the self-limiting perspective of the artist and the dark glass which he has chosen. There is a consideration of the concept of terror in the novel as well, that is, the connection between the land and those who populate it; the ancient way of seeing things that becomes obliterated by appealing to tourists' tastes.
The author's main character in "The Map" is Jed Martin. Martin lacks social instincts and has a tenuous link to his only relative, his father, a retired architect in poor health with digestive problems, prostate cancer and a plastic anus. (The author is ever one to insert a disturbing element into our sensibilities.)
Martin keeps to himself in an attic apartment in Paris, sleeping on soiled linens for weeks at a time. There are reasons for staying home. Below Martin's small apartment tramps had infiltrated the neighborhood. The "fights between them were ferocious ending with screams of agony rising to the night sky; someone would call an ambulance and a guy would be bathed in blood, with an ear half ripped off."
With such a brisk business in barbarity, it is understandable that Martin doesn't mix and mingle. Instead, he begins photographing, quite by chance, old Michelin road maps. Suddenly, after one solo exhibit, his mechanical art becomes the rage. A clever Russian woman working in Paris for Michelin, mini-skirted blond Olga Sheremoyova, advances his career and hers by taking up with him.
By the way, although Houellebecq doesn't explain his title, the reader might consider a Wikipedia entry that gives it a try. It reads, "Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski remarked that 'the map is not the territory,' encapsulating his view that an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself. Korzybski held that many people do confuse maps with territories, i.e. confuse models of reality with reality itself."
Martin's passage to this point in life is presaged by troubles. His mother Anne committed suicide when he was young. He was raised by his father, always away doing business. The result was that Martin was sent to board at a Jesuit college at Rumilly, in the Oise. Houellebecq details the turmoil that Martin faced there, where "fights between pupils were sometimes violent, the humiliations brutal and cruel."
Somehow, Martin had the time and opportunity to take his baccalaureate from this Jesuit bootcamp, having read Plato, Aeschylus and Sophocles, Racine, Moliere and Hugo, Balzac, Dickens, Flaubert, the German romantics and Russian novelists in this cruel environment.
Martin, notwithstanding his indifference to religion, notes that while at school, he recognized the importance of "the main dogmas of the Catholic faith, whose mark on Western culture had been so profound while his contemporaries generally knew more about the life of Spider-Man than that of Jesus." (As an aside, this description of godless Europe is accurate. The present Pope, Benedict XVI, has taken as his mandate the reaffiliation of secular Europe with its religious roots.)
The problem with a novel of ideas, which this purports to be, is that one wishes there were more of them. They pop up between cartoonlike characters living lives of sexual indulgence and acute loneliness.
Considerations about art fleck the pages. Martin explains that to be an artist, he "would find nothing very interesting or original to say, except one thing to be an artist was above all to be someone submissive. An artist gives in to intuitions." There's something of value in that remark.
How often does it happen that a writer, painter or sculptor starts out with one idea and shifts to another? Sometimes the material at his or her fingertips leads on to a surprising and unexpected creation. One might say that turns out to be an "artistic gesture," intended or not.
In fact Franz Teller, a gallery owner, interested in Martin as a client, follows up this line of thinking by saying, "It's not a particular art form, or manner that interests me, it's a personality, a view of the artistic gesture, of its situation in society." In this way, Martin interests Teller.
Martin switches gears by next photographing an exhaustive grouping of the world's manufactured objects, and, from there, a return to painting commonplace figures -- his father -- as well as celebrities in information technology, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
In order to work up a written program for his gallery showing, Martin contacts -- who else? -- the noted author Michel Houellebecq, living outside Shannon in Ireland. This is Houellebecq's way of inserting himself into the novel and getting even with critics by spilling invective on them. Martin needs a big name, and it will cost him 10,000 euros.
The two become important to each other because they are not quite human. They sense that lack of warmth in each other. They are like automatons -- indifferent to human relationships. And yet, not quite. Each seizes upon an intensity of look in the other that passes for attractiveness.
Toward the end of the book, Martin, now wealthy, has again taken to a solitary life as he grows older. Houellebecq is horribly murdered in his home. Martin comes to the rescue to help police solve the crime by noting one of his paintings gone missing at the scene.
Martin grows old and dies, saying in an interview about his work, "I simply want to give an account of the world."
Our author is a clever fellow, though, appealing for the reader's pity by describing his own gruesome demise. Like Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, I suspect Houellebecq will come back to life in still another book.
Michael D. Langan is a former headmaster of Nardin Academy and employee of the U.S. Treasury Department.
The Map and the Territory
By Michel Houellebecq
Knopf269 pages, $26.95