A Geography of Pain

By: Robert Moeller

In the original New York Times review of Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Map and The Territory, Damien Hirst was referred to as Damian Hirsch. A more accurate depiction of the artist, along with the correct spelling of his name, surrenders itself up just as this smartly savage novel begins. Hirst along with Jeff Koons is the subject of a painting, and as the main protaganist, an artist named Jed Martin explains: “There was a certain problem with Koons. Hirst was basically easy to capture: you could make him brutal, cynical in I shit on you from the top of my pile of cash kind of way; you could also make him a rebel artist (but rich all the same) pursuing an anguished work on death; finally, there was in his face something ruddy and heavy, typically English, which made him look like a rank-and file Arsenal supporter.” Koons, on the other hand, Martin concludes, is unreadable, like a Mormon pornographer.

All this might lead you to believe that this is just another elevated novelistic parody of the art world, but instead Houellebecq serves up a somber and telling rendering of the artistic process. The part that is unseen and unaccompanied by a publicist or craven, attention-seeking gallery owner. For Houellebecq, what matters are the deeper veins where work develops, the private space in the artist’s head. Interestingly enough, a main theme present here is ambition but in wholly unrecognizable form to anyone following the art world today. It is about the ambition to be true to one’s self; and along the way beginning to solve a series of questions that are entirely personal. In Jed Martin’s case these have to do with his mother’s suicide, his father’s failed ambitions as an architect, and later in the book, his father’s failing health. Fittingly, a Russian woman weaves in and out of Martin’s life as well. All this, one might say is the “territory.”

Houellebecq, a French writer, whose name is never more than a sentence or two away from the word “misanthropic” is a loner who is known for making a spectacle of himself before hurrying off and disappearing again. Drinks are spilled, women offended, or sometimes charmed. He also is a character here, appearing as himself, in somewhat unvarnished form either secluded away in Ireland or the French countryside in the house he grew up in. And it is Houellebecq who Jed Martin decides who must write the catalogue essay for a new body of work he is finishing called “The Series of Simple Professions”. The work, which has taken Martin seven years to complete, is a series of paintings depicting a range of modern occupations, weighted perhaps toward well-known entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and as mentioned above, Koons and Hirst. It also occurs to Martin to do a portrait of Houellebecq, for which nothing being exceedingly simple here now engenders the need for the metaphorical presence of “the map.”

Martin, who begins his artist career as a photographer, for a time fixed his attention on photographing maps, more specifically, Michelin maps. While never actually seen, Houllebecq gives us a richly detailed history of the work and along the way detours off into various meditations on the changing nature of the French countryside, and indeed, the changing nature of France itself. What’s striking is the force of this descriptive writing. Even in translation, the richness of detail informs this imaginary “work” with a looming, almost depressive power. Houellebecq uses a litany of technical details to flesh out the photographic process and tempers Martin’s compulsives so as to shear away the drudgery of such single-mindedness and expose the beauty that the process renders. To be fair, there was a minor fuss about Houellebecq’s use of details he’d apparently unearthed on Wikipedia which is addressed thusly in the acknowledgments of the English version of the book: “I also want to thank Wikipedia and its contributors whose entries I have occasionally used as a source of inspiration, notably those concerning the housefly, the town of Beauvais, and Frederic Nihous. Still, it’s no wonder that Martin wants the “fictional” Houllebecq to write the catalogue essay for his latest exhibition despite this small carelessness on the real Houellebecq’s part.

In essence, what’s captured here is the bouncing, informed dialogue of two men with rich interior lives and a measured almost muted relationship to the actual world around them. And while this relationship seems more chaotic for the fictional Houellebecq (no doubt mirroring his actual life) it is the quiet intensity of Martin’s pursuits that are most alive and fully realized. Time, too, is accelerated in a brutally honest fashion. Youth spirals into old age, leaving memory a bittersweet stand-in for the present. And as the value of Martin’s work grows he retreats further into the French countryside, fencing in his ever-expanding property and topping the obstacle with electric wire, the barrier a mediating force between Martin and the world outside.

And the rising value of Martin’s work ultimately is the undoing (in the literal sense) of the fictional Houellebecq. Without spoiling a withering and subversive twist to the plot near the end of the book, which by necessity involves the French police, and a profoundly sensitive (maybe sensible is the better word) portrait of an aging policeman, Houellebecq dispatches his fictional self with a casual fury that would be familiar to anyone with a taste for the carnage and gore of a typical American slasher film.

Fittingly, all the varied parts of this sublime novel cohere into as complex a portrait of an artistic practice as may ever been written in a work of fiction. What Houllebecq captures is the very center of an artist’s intent, something unsullied by audience, career, or personal happiness. Nothing as sad or contrarian as this should feel so liberating.

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