Writing his 1967 essay "The Death of the Author," Roland Barthes didn't imagine anything like the scene that comes two-thirds into Michel Houellebecq's fifth and latest novel, The Map and the Territory, which appeared in English last week. There we read in grisly detail about the murder and dismemberment of a character named and modeled after Houellebecq. Where Barthes wished to banish authorial biography and intention from literary criticism, Houellebecq's presence is unmistakable. Besides appearing as a character blessed with some of the book's best dialogue, the narrator's style is almost sarcastically flat, emphasizing words and phrases by simply putting them in italics, constantly reminding the reader of his authorial voice.
Houellebecq is notorious on many counts, among them the pornographic nature his previous four novels. In a 2001 interview, he branded Islam "the stupidest religion," resulting in criminal charges of inciting racial hatred, for which he was ultimately cleared in the courts. All of this has made him something of a celebrity, and he is seen as a public intellectual—an esteemed position in France—on a par with Bernard-Henri Lévy. (The two released a book of correspondences, Public Enemies, in 2011.) The present book won the 2010 Goncourt Prize, France's highest literary honor.
The main character is a present-day Parisian artist, Jed Martin, who in the book's opening passage struggles to finish a painting, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market. The painting embodies not so much Martin's interest in esthetics as in capitalist markets. In art school, Martin undertook "the systematic photography of the world's manufactured objects." Houellebecq is clearly a student of Walker Evans's famous photographs of tools and Christopher Williams's studies of camera and film, and the deadpan documentary images of the Bechers. Martin moves on to "The Series of Simple Professions," portrait paintings of workers, from butchers to editors and architects, as if August Sander had been reincarnated as a 21st-century painter.
The novel's title refers to a familiar dictum by Polish-American philosopher and scientist Alfred Korzybski, "The map is not the territory," meaning that most people have no direct access to reality, but rather only to ideas and beliefs they have built up about it. Martin makes a splash with his clinically detached photographs of Michelin road maps; he introduces them in the show "The Map Is More Interesting Than the Territory," a title that seems to celebrate Korzybski's maxim and all its implications, privileging simulacra over reality.