Studying life, looking at life from a distance can be more meaningful than actually living. At least that is what is the case for the main character Jed Martin in the book The map and the territory by French author Michel Houellebecq.
Jed Martin is an artist who becomes very successful, almost despite himself. He had two relationships with women, but neither one lasted. His mother committed suicide when he was little and he sees his father about once a year, when they have dinner together at Christmas. At one point Jed has the most contact with his boiler, at least he talks to it.
Jed does not feel related to most of the people, he just observes them. When he began as an artist he made photographs of consumer goods, but then he switches to making close ups of Michelin roadmaps. These become very popular and his first exhibition is called ‘The card is more important than the territory’.
After the success of this exhibition Jed takes up painting and starts on a series of painting different professions. This brings him in contact with the writer Houellebecq, who will write the text for the exhibition’s catalogue. Jed feels a connection with the writer and decides to paint the writer’s portrait as a closing piece to the exhibition.
Michel Houellebecq is a controversial French author. It seems there are only two sides, either you love his work, or you hate it. His pessimistic view on society and nihilistic view of life (he has the opinion people are only motivated by greed and either want sex or money, or both), will always cause different groups who feel insulted to protest against his books.
The map and the territory is the first book I have read by Houellebecq, and I must say I did enjoy this first acquaintance. I do understand that this is considered to be one of his mildest books, so when I will read his next book I will expect to be shocked, but somehow I have the feeling I will be able to enjoy those as well.
What also made me like Houellebecq is that he can make fun of himself in the way he portrays himself in the novel. The novel-Houellebecq will meet a horrible end, but has a chance to rant a couple of times. Although when Jed Martin tells him after a rant that he is now playing a version of himself, the writer immediately agrees.
It is sometimes said that Houellebecq does not have a beautiful way of writing, he used odd changes in perspective and switches from present to past in one paragraph. I must say I did not notice this. I quite liked the way he manages to fit all kinds of detailed explanations and digressions in the story. I just liked this book very much.
The novel-Houellebecq is not such a nihilist as he wanted people to believe, it turns out he was baptized in the Catholic Church a few months before his death, and that leaves room for hope. Perhaps the real Houellebecq will mock this interpretation, but it pleased me.
There is a lot I have not told about this book, but then I would be giving away too much. This is one of those books you should read for yourself.
Original French title: La carte et le territoire
Published in 2010