Follow by Email

Sunday, 2 December 2012

'The Map and the Territory' by Michel Houellebecq

This starts off reading like a satire of the contemporary art world, but then turns into something of a mystery thriller. Like some of Houellebecq’s previous work, it is set in the near future but addresses the concerns of the present. France is recovering after a major financial crisis and has become almost totally dependent on tourism and, once again, agriculture. We follow the career of the artist Jed Martin as he pursues his life’s work "to give an objective description of the world."
Single-minded, somewhat naïve, but completely focused on his work, he wins international acclaim through various projects, before his painting starts to bring him incredible wealth. When he decides to paint the famous writer 'Michel Houellebecq', we are treated to a comic and self-deprecating portrait of a reclusive and world-weary man who, we are told, "smells bad, but less bad than a corpse".

As one would expect, there are extended riffs on a variety of topics –France and the French, euthanasia, socialism, art and commerce- but when the fictional 'Houellebecq' exits stage left (I won’t tell you how that happens, but it isn’t pretty), the novel seems to lose some momentum as it starts to follow a police investigation into the ‘Houellebecq’ case and also the final, introspective phase of Jed's career. Having spent much of his artistic life focusing on human labour (his most famous painting is called 'Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology: The Conversation at Palo Alto') Jed becomes a recluse and spends decades making films celebrating the triumph of vegetation over industrial objects. His work suggests that, in spite of all this human endeavour, plants and vegetation will endure to reclaim the world from humankind.

Houellebecq has been described as French literature's JG Ballard and it's probably fair to say that his key themes are existential ennui and the decline of the liberal west. He is at his best when he goes off on one and his forensic cynicism can be quite intoxicating; this, however, is probably his most mainstream work and not at all likely to scare the horses. 'The Map and the Territory' makes you think about the nature and purpose of work; Jed Martin's career is presented as an ideal and noble pursuit, a route to personal identity and fulfillment much more rewarding than travel, consumerism, love or parenthood. Other opinions, as they say, are available.

No comments:

Post a Comment