By Michel Houellebecq. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. 288 pp. $26.95. ISBN: 978-0-307-70155-8
Decorate a reproduction of the Mona Lisa with a mustache and goatee, and you have a humorous take on classical painting, thought Marcel Duchamp. Paint a pipe, and beneath it, the wry caption, “this is not a pipe.” Witty, to René Magritte. There’s fearful symmetry between the curvature of a woman’s back and a violin, so paint f-holes on a model, photograph her, and call it “Le Violon d’Ingres.” Woman as painter’s violin, and, idiomatically, woman as hobby, to Man Ray. Polish-American philosopher Alfred Korzybski, writing a few years later, aphorized, “the map is not the territory,” which illustrates precisely the tensions between representation and abstraction, object and ontology, in these canonical modernist works.
Fabled French misanthrope Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory, an affectively taut, tempered narrative awarded the 2010 Prix Goncourt for “best and most imaginative prose work of the year,” draws its title and message from Korzybski’s bon mot. Dramatis personæ: contemporary artist Jed Martin, who photographs Michelin maps, then becomes renowned for his “Series of Simple Professions” and celebrity portraiture; his father Jean-Pierre, a Corbusier-hating architect and “finished man” whose quixotic blueprints languish in storage while he executes practical works of draftsmanship, and, in a stroke of sardonic self-awareness and gallows humor, the “old turtle” Michel Houellebecq, who makes a cameo when hired to write catalog copy for one of Jed’s solo exhibitions. The neurasthenic, solitary Jed fosters a caring yet tense relationship with Jean-Pierre, falls in love with Olga, a striking Michelin PR rep, and befriends Houellebecq, a “tired old decadent” and “tortured wreck” whose idiosyncrasies (like the idea of purchasing a sheep, rather than a lawnmower, to tend his front yard) he appreciates in a measured if detached manner. Jed’s accession to the heights of success is rendered painful by the loss of his father to rectal cancer and physician-assisted suicide, and by the murder of Houellebecq by a thief who robs him of a portrait Jed painted of him, then brutally beheads him and his dog, decorating the writer’s living room with the remains.
The novel’s spare beauty pivots on mood rather than action, abstraction rather than representation, territory rather than map. It’s an anatomy of male melancholy, an exposition of the refrain “it doesn’t amount to much, a human life.” Characters who try to understand life or art—critics, whose formal terminology is italicized, and Houellebecq, who writes the catalog essay—are satirized or killed. Even Jed, whose career is “devoted…to the production of representations of the world, in which people were never meant to live,” moves away from maps as artistic inspiration. Initially seeing them as “the essence of modernity, of scientific and technical apprehension of the world…combined with the essence of animal life…the thrill, the appeal, of human lives, of dozens and hundreds of souls,” he later realizes they’re attempts to impose a fixative on mutable territory.
Abstractions remain beautiful, but representations are distorted. Houellebecq’s repurchased childhood home, an “absolutely miraculous” place in his mind’s eye, becomes the scene of his grisly murder. The semblance of a Jackson Pollock painting is actually the trailing pattern of blood from Houellebecq’s severed head. Jean-Pierre’s unrealized blueprints are merely the stirrings of derivative, impracticable thought. Wealth, even when earned, doesn’t redress pain or decay, but makes artists disdainful of others, whereas “to be an artist, in [Jed’s] view, was above all to be someone submissive.” Jed bitterly quips that Damien Hirst’s attitude is, “I shit on you from the top of my pile of cash,” and in an enraged Dorian Gray moment, plunges a knife into his portrait of Hirst and Jeff Koons.
The Map and the Territory’s message is best captured by Leonard Cohen in “The Darkness,” featured on his newly released album, “Old Ideas.” “I got the darkness/ From your little ruby cup…There’s nothing but the darkness/ Makes any sense to me at all,” he sings. The novel sets up a tension between Jed’s purist, functionalist view of art, his lack of artistic ethos, and his objection to criticism, and Jean-Pierre’s visionary but ultimately dyspeptic outlook. That tension is unresolved, obscured in “mortal sadness,” “gentle resignation,” and “sad and reciprocal pity.” There’s no redemption here, nothing but the darkness, the fractured beauty of the effort to chart the territory, the gravity of having lived.
This piece was published in Bookslut here.