The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq

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The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Andy Lancaster
Reviewed by Andy Lancaster
Summary: A satire on the world of modern art, a novel about coming to terms with one's mortality, a post-modern confusion of author and character, a classy who-dunnit, this book is at once all and perhaps none of those. Houellebecq takes us through an erudite switchback ride of contemporary fiction which constantly surprises and delights.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: June 2012
Publisher: Vintage Books
ISBN: 978-0099554578

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Jed Martin, initially a photographer and later painter, has a singular take on the world and his craft. This novel takes him from obscurity as a reclusive student to fame as the doyenne of the contemporary art scene and in this journey we see exposed both the underlying values but in many ways the essential emptiness of the art world. He is 'taken up', feted and courted by critics and patrons, by those who know nothing but monetary value, and Houellebecq doesn't let any opportunity for a sharp gibe at galleries, art critics and agents go past. The key to Jed's fame is ironically his complete anonymity, and Houellebecq’s creation of the catarrh dribbling agent Marylin who manages Jed’s ‘outing’ is one of the classics of modern satire.

But this is not only a witty commentary, for Jed's work actually has a firm and challenging rationale behind it - Houellebecq 's precise writing lead us to actually 'see' the art works that his character creates, to see their genuine interest and merit as artistic creations in response to modern France, while at the same time being able to laugh at the obscene commercialisation that is engendered by the world of no less than the president of Michelin. Both in the thinking behind using maps as a dialogue between landscape and culture, and in his later paintings of meetings between significant cultural figures (for instance Damien Hurst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up The Art Market) these are creditable works of contemporary art. Or is the joke on us?

Jed is not a mere cipher for Houellebecq's exploration of art - woven through the novel are Jed's personal relationships, with his father who he sees just once a year, and with his women, especially the gorgeous Olga. The novel’s long timescale allows Houellebecq to explore more personal themes, of loss and loneliness, of death and the meaning of human existence. Although Jed is a distant character, often seeming more to stand on the outside of these relationships and look in, the tensions between generations and genders, between social ambition and personal 'practice' are convincingly portrayed here. While conversations bare conceptual weight and expose the clash of ideologies that exist in France, they have a genuine and sometimes touching humanity which gives another.

But the most bizarre relationship is with Jed's own 'author', Houellebecq himself, who becomes both a character and a victim within his own novel. This post-modern trickery is not untypical of the Prix Goncourt prize-winner, Houellebecq, but it works surprisingly fluently, allowing a detective story to be interlaced with reflections on the purpose and role of the author in contemporary society. The mystery allows Houellebecq to add a rich philosophical layer , creating a simple and engaging tale which exemplifies the post-modern discussion of the nature of truth.

This book has a variety of layers and directions, always engaging and fluent but at the same time confronting major questions of modern existence. It is never simple, but never over complex or resorting to jargon. This is a masterful work of modern fiction which promises that each reading will stimulate another idea, another reflection upon human existence.

Such a unique combination of genre and intent isn’t common, so perhaps the best recommendation is to follow up some of the understandings of modern France here with a read of The Secret Life of France by Lucy Wadham, both a personal account of some Parisian experiences but also in the later sections of the book a sharp analysis of aspects of French society, in the same vein as Houellebecq’s sideways take on terroir. In similar satirical and philosophical style are the later works of J G Ballard.

Buy The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq at

Buy The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq at


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