One can make some assumptions about the stereotypical ‘high brow French literary novel’. It will have art and artists. It will have relationships with sexual issues. It will have a detached, affected tone remarking mildly on minor revelations while savoring cynicism—as if existence were something strange, something to look at with a raised eyebrow. Stereotypes taking time to cement themselves in cultural mindset, however, Michel Houellebecq’s 2010 novel The Map & the Territory thus comes as something of an anachronistic surprise.
Clinging to these traditional bulwarks of ‘high brow French literature’, The Map & the Territory sets two artists front and center: one is the fictional Jed Martin, a photographer cum painter who starts small but comes to some success, and the other Houellbecq himself. Martin falling in love (or something resembling love, that ‘high brow French literary’, distance from existence again…) with the sexy Russian beauty Olga in the early part of his career, the relationship quickly goes south, and Martin finds himself alone. Perfect opportunity to shift to a new phase in your artistic career you predict? You would be correct. Martin goes on to channel his sadness at the doomed relationship (or something like sadness…) into a hugely successful series painting fictional scenes from the lives of contemporary luminaries, scenes like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discuss the Future of Information Technology. Houellebecq one of the luminaries nominated to have his likeness rendered in oil on canvas, Martin meets the brooding writer, and the two strike up a friendship (or something like a friendship…) Things get a bit shaken up when Houellebecq is found brutally murdered, meaning the police need to speak to Martin to find out why.
One of my early notes from the novel reads that, in order for The Map & the Territory to shed its worn cloak of traditionalism and become something fresh, something that can move beyond the stereotypes of ‘high brow French literary’, it would need to be satire of some caliber, or at least overturn the cart it was rapidly filling with apples at the conclusion. Yet despite fuzzy tongue-in-cheek hints and authorial awareness of the product being created, that shoe never drops, and the novel, regardless of its disjointed third and final part, fades into familiarity. It should be noted, Houellbecq does, at a minimum, accomplish his themes of growing older, the father-son relationship, and reality as seen through art. Despite how beaten-dead-horse those themes sound, the trajectory of Martin’s career alongside a difficult relationship with a workaholic father and the interplay of Houellebecq and Martin’s creative inspiration do find their way through the authorial hubris and phlegmatism to leave some mark on the reader.
The Map & the Territory is written in a slightly affected style (possibly due to translation). It’s not an elegant or beautiful flow of language, rather sterile and blocky, moments of solid engagement offset by sustained banalities. Neither of our main characters are people the reader gains an intimate view of their interior. Each sparsely occupy the page—which is not a criticism, only that something more was needed than obscure wine vintages or mundane maxims to fill the void beyond. Martin’s daddy issues are like gray clouds, as are Houellebecq’s personal issues—the two men’s lives certainly intended to parallel one another. By some definition this is the artiste at work (gotta live the blues to sing the blues), but by another it is a listless lectern that offers the reader little material to immerse themselves given the lack of complementary material.
From its obsession with wines and cheeses to the tortured soul of the artist, paranoid skepticism of the modern world to relationship problems, The Map & the Territory rarely rises above the elements the reader can infer underpin these stereotypes. Trodding ground that has been laid bare by numerous previous writers, Houellebecq attempts to spice things up by adding himself as a character, but does so in rather drab, otiose fashion that renders the affair somewhat conceited. Where writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth, Charles Yu, or Jeffrey Ford have made themselves characters in their own stories to question or explore some idea, Houellebecq shuts the door on open-ended speculation by killing himself, fictionally. There appears little beyond that is humorous, cathartic, or purposeful in this action save self-loathing, which does few favors for the novel as a whole.
In the end, I remain very curious if The Map & the Territory would receive the same reception were Joe Nobody the author rather than Houellebecq. Its broken structure, its fitful prose, its quotidian aphorisms, its authorial vanity—these are points lesser authors are criticized for. And the content, it’s all so familiar, so indeed stereotypical—the old guard rather than the avant. At one point Houellbecq describes his own murder as having “increased the mediocrity in the world”. I’m not sure this isn’t simply another way of capturing the novel in a word.