Scarred by his mother's suicide and an emotionally remote father, the antisocial artist takes a dim view of human relationships, at one point saying that "they don't really amount to much." The narrative suggests little if any hope for his redemption. Now in his fifties, Houellebecq himself was abandoned as a child by his hippie parents; the parallels between Houellebecq and Martin suggest that the author intends him as something of an alter ego.
For an upcoming exhibition, Martin invites none other than French author Michel Houellebecq to compose a catalogue essay (though it's never really established why he finds Houellebecq interesting), and visits the writer at his home in Ireland (where Houellebecq resided for some years). He finds the author morbidly depressed, abusing wine and sleeping pills, but nonetheless willing to write the piece.
When Houellebecq is murdered, the book takes an unexpected turn from biography to police procedural. But the inspector, Jean-Pierre Jasselin, has a clinical regard for the extremes of human behavior, as seen in the crimes he investigates, and that makes him a character not so different in some ways from the emotionally detached artist. While the inquiry brings Martin and Jasselin together (inspectors question Martin in the course of their information-gathering), the crime and its investigation ultimately shed little light on the author's themes of capitalism and consumerism and its effects on modern mankind.
In his essay, which is summarized in the novel, Houellebecq argues that Martin's work writes a history of products and producers, even suggesting A Brief History of Capitalism as a subtitle for the portraits of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. And in a conversation with Martin, Houellebecq offers a tearful, loving soliloquy on his favorite consumer items before concluding, "We too are products--cultural products. We too will become obsolete." While it's not a completely original observation, it's effectively woven into the biography of an artist whose work one really would like to see.
Martin's trajectory from still life photographer to portraitist to history painter is intriguing, and he moves freely among genres and mediums in a way that's true to contemporary practice. The imagery Martin creates vanitas-themed videomontages in his final years, in which the landscape scenery of his country estate engulfs the products he depicted in his earlier works. It's as if the older artist, like many before him, had been chastened by time. As such, these works provide a convincing artistic expression of the book's sad, skeptical tone—time will defeat all, these works say, even mankind, and maybe even capitalism.