Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Magic Territory: The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq's fifth novel, translated from the French by Gavin Bowd, is an engrossing book that becomes increasingly integrated and satisfying as the story unfolds. The prologue places the reader in the middle of the artistic life of Jed Martin, a pale, slight, and somewhat bewildered son of a successful Parisian architect. He is similar in his non-assertive personality to Thomas Mann's character, Hans Castorp. Jed is preparing a solo exhibition in the spring of his paintings of people in a wide range of professions that capture the embodiment of the vocations. There is a potential for a top market value for these works of art. He is having difficulty with a painting of two artists whose work has become so popular that they have achieved the ArtPrice ranking of number 1 and 2 of the richest artists in the world.

The novel is divided into three parts, each dealing with the monetary and symbolic value of art. In part one, Jed's artistic development is described as being greatly influenced by his father's focus on straight lines and livable angles in architectural drawings and the beautifully designed photographic equipment of his grandfather. Jed matures from childhood drawings to photographing manufactured objects in relentless realistic detail, gradually eliminating background to focus on close-up shots. From these representations of the perfect blend of monetary value and functionality in an industrial world, Jed becomes interested in the symbols representing real objects in the environment. He photographs road maps of cities and countryside and contrasts them with their associated real world counterparts photographed from the sky. The juxtaposition of map and land, symbols and actuality are stunning in his artwork and gain high market value. Executives of a map making company pay Jed generous sums to use his work in their advertising.

In part 2, Jed becomes interested in the combination of symbol and form and tries to capture the integration of these two factors in the motivation of outstanding working individuals. Photographs do not capture this merging of human characteristics even with computerized manipulations of images. Jed realizes that only in painting can the artist fuse symbolism and realism to show the essence of human beings, to go beyond the structure of the paintings' depictions. He spends years (7 as does Hans in an Alpine sanitorium) in relative isolation attempting to perfectly capture this fusion. The subjects of the work and those who accumulate art are fascinated by the results because they see themselves as more than they thought they were, and more fascinating than they actually are. Jed becomes very rich due to supply and demand for these coveted paintings. He remains indifferent to his riches but does organize a showing of his work. In order to present the work, he needs a catalog writer who can set the stage for the exhibition. Jed approaches the eccentric and controversial writer Michel Houellebecq to write the catalogue and listens to his concepts, theories, and disjointed aphorisms that increase with wine intake. This is reminiscent of Hans Castorp who listens with increasing interest to the wide-ranging debates of Settimbrini and Naphta as he ventures on brief trips down the mountain to the village. In this novel, the two asocial creative characters form a chaotic working relationship that leads inevitably to great financial success.

In part 3, the connection between finances, artistic production, psychological disintegration, and end of life circumstances bring some resolution to the reader. It is a nice acceptance of evitability with a conclusion that at the extremes, both financial success and failure provide the circumstances of insightful art. The vast middle ground between these extremes where most of us live involves distortions of creative views of personal experiences and restricted happiness. Representations of humanity are inextricably tied to money and social competition reducing much of human motivation to basic survival activities. Capitalism maintains this vast middle class rationalization. Jed seeks the integration of ideas he achieved in his art in his own work life history. The reader will judge if he reaches this goal just as I had to judge whether Jed Martin and Hans Castorp found something worth living for.

I really enjoyed reading this novel. Again, it produced a strange relaxation, a welcoming of unruly thoughts and circumstances and a view of an avenue to an acceptable death. From a different dimension, I experienced the same withdrawal from social determinism reading The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq as I did in reading The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. I had a feeling of a perfect personal fit in the symbolic worlds of the two authors and a genuine reluctance to return to the mundane world of daily activity.