Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Map and the TerritoryThe Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Through a rather stunning coincidence, within one week I read two books by serious authors, in which they write about themselves in third person and refer to their own death and events that follow it: J.M. Coetzee's extraordinary "Summertime" and now Michel Houellebecq's "The Map and the Territory". The latter is the author's sixth novel and one awarded with the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2010. Alas, despite widespread critical acclaim, I am unable to find this novel a masterpiece, although it definitely is a great read: I was so enthralled by it one night that I could not turn the light off until after 3 a.m. While the book is supremely captivating, it is to me rather empty and devoid of deeper value. Reading "The Map" feels a little like perusing a high-class magazine: good stuff, but a lack of unifying theme.

The novel follows the life and artistic trajectory of a (fictitious) successful French visual artist, Jed Martin, a photographer and painter. He hires a famous author, Michel Houellebecq, to write the catalogue for an exhibition of his works. The painter and the author become friends and they keep in touch until Mr. Houellebecq's death. Of course, this brief synopsis of the plot has very little to do with what the book is about. The evolution of Mr. Martin's style and his changes of media of artistic expression are shown with particular emphasis on the concept of art as commodity and the mechanisms through which the free-market influences the production and reception of art. We also learn about Jed Martin's intimate life (two rather sweet love stories) and about the relationship with his father. "The Map" is also about aging and dying. What's more, a little over a third of the novel is a rather straightforward police procedural.

Early into the novel I thought I was onto something in my search for the main theme. Jed Martin's first excursion into the world of visual arts was his series of photographs that showed various hardware items. The pictures were images of real-world objects. Mr. Martin's next big project was an extremely well-received series of photographs of Michelin maps showing various regions in France. Since a map is itself a sort of an image of the real terrain, then a photograph of a map is an image of an image. After a hiatus, Mr. Martin embarked on yet another artistic journey: he produced a series of paintings that with maximum realism presented people doing their work, the so-called Series of Simple Professions. In creating his paintings he worked off photographs, so in a sense he was again producing images of images. I almost hoped that the last painting of the series will be entitled "Jed Martin Painting Himself Painting a Picture", but no such luck, and my hypothesis of gradual increase of the level of indirection in Mr. Martin's art is not valid.

"The Map" is extremely funny in places: the titles of paintings like "Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology", the concept of "primary professions", several prose fragments like, for instance, "Disarming smile is an expression you still encounter in certain novels, and therefore must correspond to some kind of reality" are just plain hilarious! Yet what bothers me a little is the author's propensity for using heavy technical jargon, especially the brand names and model numbers. For example, he uses phrases and passages like "600-HS digital back which enabled the capture of 48-bit RGB files in a 6000-by-8000 pixel format", "Lexus RX 350 SUV", "Nikon D3X, Samsung ZRT-AV2", "Bugatti Veyron 16.4 [...] Fitted with a 16-cylinder W engine with 1,001 horsepower, complete with four turbochargers, it could go from 0 to 110 km per hour in 2.5 seconds and had a top speed of 407 km per hour." Since I do not believe Mr. Houellebecq would stoop to getting paid by the manufacturer's, I am unable to explain the purpose of the jargon.

Seriously, although I finished this addictively readable book almost a week ago, I still am at loss what it is about. I will definitely read more of Mr. Houellebecq's work, hoping it will help me understand. For the time being, my rating is rounded down.

Three and a half stars.

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