The Map and the Territory
By Michel Houellebecq

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Rating: Impressive
4 Stars

Original French Title:  La Carte et le Territoire
Original French Publication: 2010
Translated to English by Gavin Bowd
First American Edition 2012
Jacket photograph:  Laurence Demaison
269 pages

Review © 2012 by Stephen Roof
Genre:  Literature, General Fiction, Art, Crime Fiction



The Map and the Territory is a new work of literature by Michel Houellebecq, an original and award winning French author who has also been a bit controversial.  This novel is certainly his most mainstream novel and won the Prix Goncourt award for best French novel in 2010.  The Map and the Territory is a challenging novel of ideas that offers large rewards.  It mostly follows the life of a Parisian artist from his teenage years to old age.  In this way it focuses on the art world as a lens with which to view many aspects of human culture and life in the modern world.   Throughout this process, Houellebecq brings sharp satire, deep irony, dark comedy, and occasional startling insights that make this novel a particularly rewarding read.

Michel Houellebecq has been controversial for his use of shock value and sleaze in novels and also for scathing criticisms of religions.  Indeed, I’ve read one of his earliest and most well-known novels, The Elementary Particles which had some of these shocking scenes and has been criticized for having excessive amounts of explicit sex and violence.  However, The Map and the Territory is a much more mainstream novel which doesn’t have the kind of provocative shocks that could be criticized as existing for shock value only.  But you needn’t worry about this being a bland novel either; it has a very original voice and there are plenty of surprises including the discovery of a gruesome murder scene.  

The Map and the Territory is an ambitious novel that makes observations about a very wide variety of aspects to modern civilization.  Most of the novel follows the life and struggles of an artist, Jed Martin.  With an artist as the main character and hero of this novel, it shares some of the sensibilities of two other great works of literature which examined the world through the life of an artist, The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce and The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary.  Just like Gulley Jimson, from The Horse’s Mouth, Jed is in constant struggle during the creative process.  In particular, he sacrifices any thoughts of family or stable love life in the pursuit of his art.  However, unlike Gulley Jimson, Jed Martin doesn’t have to struggle financially at all due to being born into a well to do family and then finding artistic commercial success at a very young age.  Jed’s struggles are in regards to communication with others, developing social skills, developing any kind of friendships, caring for others, and in learning about love. 

Jed finds success as an artist because he is able to see things in different ways than most people, thanks to his being different from most people.  From the age of a young child he lives a very isolated life with a mother that committed suicide when he was only 7 and a father that became married to his work to the point where he had no time for his son.  As Jed matures into an adult he continues to live almost completely isolated from society.  As an outsider, he can see things most insiders don’t ever notice.  In this regard, Jed is like most great artists, he doesn’t fit neatly into society.  Jed also intuitively knows the value of struggle.  When he gets to the point where he is completely comfortable with an artistic technique, he knows that his creativity will begin to get stale and he knows he must abandon it for a new technique so that he will be forced to begin struggling again to create new visions.

Jed’s personal life has been harshly shaped by the suicide of his mother and the aloofness of his father.  He remains a loner at school and, with no one with whom to share feelings, Jed fails to develop socializing skills or even the skills to develop a loving relationship.  When he falls into a serious relationship with a woman who obviously loves him, he can’t express his feelings and is not able to return her love.  He may also subconsciously realize that if he yields to love and succumbs to a life that includes comforts and pleasures, he will lose his drive to create.

Later in life, Jed finds some optimism that he might develop a kind of friendship with a professional acquaintance who is also an artist, in this case an author, with a similar lack of social skills.  In a literary twist, the author is named Michel Houellebecq, the author of this novel.  It would be interesting to find out how much of the author’s character in this novel is autobiographical.  I would imagine that a good part is indeed drawn directly from the author himself.  The fictional Houellebecq also has much in common with Jed, particularly in regards to his isolation from society.

Through Jed’s life, his art, and the events of the novel, the reader is exposed to a huge variety of views on society and modern civilization.  The novel touches on everything from economics to the conflicts between man and nature to the differences between love and lust.  There are discussions and ruminations that range from consumer culture to the effects of the industrial and information age to the evolution of professions in the modern world to the conflicts between man and nature.

The one aspect of this novel that I have completely failed to describe is the humor.  Even within the most serious discourses on such predominantly boring subjects such as economics, there were sharp ironies highlighted, observant humor, and occasionally hysterically funny insights.  The observations of people’s personalities almost always included elements of humor.  There were more than a few occasions where I was prompted to laugh out loud.

The pace of this novel varies widely.  It’s slow at times and there are long tangents to examine thoughts about some aspect of art, culture, or society.  But there is also a steady stream of humor and a constant barrage of ideas that can make you look at things differently.  The novel is divided into three parts and the beginning of the third section takes a major detour from the rest of the novel as the novel’s focus shifts from Jed to a police murder inspector who encounters a particularly gruesome murder that is only tangentially related to Jed.  This is kind of jarring to the reader as the whole mood of the novel shifts suddenly and there is a pause to fill in the background and describe the character of the inspector.  However, eventually this case ties in to the last phase of Jed’s life which includes coming to terms with old age and death.

If you’re ready to really think about the state of the modern world, where it’s heading, and the meaning of life, do yourself a favor and read The Map and the Territory.  It offers terrific insights along with lots of humor and wit.  With The Map and the Territory, Houellebecq provides a very original voice that can help you see many aspects of our modern world in a new light.