The latest novel from infant terrible Michel Houellebecq, The Map and the Territory sits in his oeuvre as a less-cruel, poignant romp through familiar themes.
“It’s true, I feel only a faint sense of solidarity with the human species…” Michel Houellebecq [the character] tells Jed Martin [the character] in Michel Houellebecq’s [the author] The Map and the Territory. The longtime reader of Houellebecq will either tiredly or tirelessly nod along with this. It doesn’t take such a blatancy to realize that this is the crux of Houellebecq’s project. A reader’s interest in each of his novels depends on how well Houellebecq is able to both convert this idea into dramatic fiction and avoid the tedious pontification he sometimes forces through his character’s mouths. Those of us faithfully keeping score at home know that he is at times much more successful than at others.
This novel follows the career of photographer, painter, and photographer (once again) Jed Martin. Martin begins the novel in the midst of a frustrated session with his in-progress Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up The Art Market, part of his Professions series of paintings. His previous two series consist of, first, photographs of hardware and tools and, second, an array of low-angle close ups of Michelin travel maps. Eventually, as his fame grows, Jed becomes involved with Michel Houellebecq [the character], whom he hires to write an introductory decoction of his work for an exhibition. This being a rather solitary story, Jed’s only other main point of contact (there is a “girlfriend,” but we’ll get to that) is his father with whom he has an annual Christmas Eve meal. Jed’s father is a depressed, thwarted architect whose dream of constructing avant-garde living spaces he permanently shelved in order to design gaudy destination resorts. He is a widower, as Jed’s mother is dispatched early on in exposition: “…a few days before her son’s seventh birthday, she committed suicide—Jed only learned about this many years later through the indiscretion of his paternal grandmother.”
Jed, a painter with hermitic tendencies not unlike Houellebecq’s [the author], as well as an emotional removal from humanity, lacks the anger of previous Houellebecq protagonists, such as Bruno in The Elementary Particles or the unnamed narrator of Whatever. He spends less time than them, however, eviscerating those he considers stupid (Muslims and new age hippies, for instance) and more time being unresponsive: “…Jed certainly would’ve been astonished if his nature had allowed him to be astonished by this sort of thing, or even to notice it.” This robotic admission recalls the clonal descendants of Daniel in The Possibility of an Island. Those isolated beings spend their time in hermetically sealed houses, immersed in representations of history passed down by their previous iterations, prevented from engaging in any sort of clone-on-clone interaction.
Besides Houellebecq [the character] and the father (since we get Jed saying to Houellebecq [the character], “You sound like my father,” we might be inclined to delete that “and”), there is a fleeting love interest, though instead of love interest, one might better understand her as the hot, rich, Russian blond who facilitates the plot. Olga, who hooks him up with his first big paying gig before disappearing from the story for a while, making a quick cameo and then disappearing again, begins to show the signs of aging that made Isabelle in The Possibility of An Island not suitable for a relationship with Daniel. In that novel, Isabelle realizes that she has become unattractive and politely removes herself from the story to go live with her mother. Conversely, upon waking the morning after his reunion with Olga, Jed is the one who removes himself from the situation. Examining her in bed, he logically works through the following evidence:
Exhibit A – He did not immediately get an erection when he saw her for the first time in ten years.
Exhibit B – She did not offer to give him a blowjob later that night to rectify this.
Exhibit C – He was unsure if he should ask for a blowjob, the waters muddy as to what exactly their “sexual rights” currently are.
With the sort of logic that pervades the Houellebecq oeuvre, affectless Jed wanders away in the morning, removing Olga from the narrative in order to spare either of them what some might term a relationship. Another aging lady bites the dust.
Since Jed is an emotional vacuum (notwithstanding a nonsensical physical outburst at the end of the story that doesn’t jibe with anything that came before), the characteristic depression and anger of Houellebecq’s characters has to come from somewhere. The anger is left to Michel Houllebecq [the character]. He spends about as much time as Houellebecq [the author] does in his letters with Bernard-Henri Lévy on how stupid the press and various bloggers are. He is presented as the enraged adult that the young, sexually frustrated narrator of Whatever became. “The look in the author’s eyes, much too intense,” makes Jed Martin ill at ease but draws him to the author all the same. Jed tells him point blank during one of their meetings, “…I’m waiting for a message from you.” Here both the tired and the tireless reader start vigorously nodding their heads in agreement.
“The message” is sometimes, but not always, interminable passages of Houellebecq [the character] explaining to Jed, What Writing Is. When they work, these sections are where the novel springs to life. Houellebecq [the character] seems to take on the sort of eloquence not allowed the narrative voice, though he retains the matter of fact tone that sometimes sounds conclusive where it should be inconclusive.
Since this is a novel about art in many forms, there is less of the usual focus on cruelty, and more on explication. Contrast these two Houellebecq characters’ experiences at boarding school:
Jed in The Map and The Territory:
The fights between pupils were sometimes violent, the humiliations brutal and cruel, and Jed, being delicate and slight, would have been incapable of defending himself; but word spread that he was motherless, and such suffering, which none of them could claim to know, intimidated his schoolmates; thus there was around him a sort of halo of fearful respect.
Bruno (another motherless child) in The Elementary Particles:
Bruno leans against the sink…About to brush his teeth, as he does every night, he hopes to get out of the bathroom without anything happening. When Wilmart comes up from behind and pushes him, Bruno backs away, trembling, he knows what will happen next. “Leave me alone,” he says feebly…Brasseur joins the others; at fourteen, he is the oldest boy in the sixième. He takes out his prick, which to Bruno seems huge, then stands over the boy and pisses on his face.
While operating in the same authorial world, the former is boarding school as a forbidding but possibly sympathetic place, while the later is boarding school as a horror movie. The Brassuers and Wilmarts of Jed’s boarding school would probably have pounced on Jed at the first sense of weakness, had Houellebecq written the novel a decade earlier. In The Map and The Territory, cruelty is mentioned, lurking somewhere in the background, but now, the weak are sometimes allowed a pass.
A large chunk toward the end of the novel follows a particularly apposite murder investigation, though I won’t give away its focus, in the off chance that you’ve been able to avoid most other reviews. The investigating detective, Jasselin, is, like Jed, a more satisfied than usual Houellebecq protagonist. He does share the normative Houellebequian trait, however, of certain dissatisfaction with the human race, or at least its youngest members, “No, he really didn’t like children, or in any case human children.” He prefers instead to keep company with his pet Bichon, in much the same way that Houellebecq [the character], Houellebecq [the author], Daniel from The Possibility of an Island and all of his clonal offspring love some canine companions.
The focus of Jasselin’s section is the observation of death, which links him in a curious way to Jed. Jed’s Malagasy college girlfriend, putting herself through art school as a prostitute, describes to Jed the rituals around burial in her culture: “One week after the death, the corpse was dug up, the shroud was undone, and a meal was eaten in its presence, in the family’s dining room; then it was buried again.” The process is repeated at intervals for a year, at which point, “the deceased was definitely considered dead.” Jasselin recalls a similar experience, when considering the nauseous reaction of some policeman to a gruesome murder scene. He travels to a Sri Lankan Buddhist monastery to practice Asubha, a ritual where, contemplating corpses in a mass grave Jasselin is instructed to repeat to himself, “This is my fate, the fate of all mankind, I cannot escape it.”
Ben Jeffery, in his incredible exegesis on Houellebecq, David Foster Wallace and a whole lot of other stuff, Anti-Matter, tells us, “Depressive realism [Jeffery’s term for Houellebecq’s self-imposed genre] leads us up to an airless summit, and the wonder is how seriously we can take it; whether, despite itself, there is anything to be drawn from its negativity.” It’s something of a hard question to answer, but you can’t say anything if you can’t say that Houellebecq himself believes that there is nothing to be drawn from the fact that things end, and there isn’t a choice between positivity and negativity, just a willingness to trudge on until the end comes.
In that end, the reader is left with Jed’s final art project, produced in happy isolation in a forest of his own creation. It is the image of vegetation swallowing all of the decaying machines of human production, subsuming all artifactual traces of mankind into the underbrush of a recovering planet. The ultimate Houellebecquian finish.