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.
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.