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In post-modern fashion, Michel Houllebecq’s novel The Map and the Territory includes a character named Michel Houllebecq. The character Houllebecq comes on the scene well into the action of the book, which follows artist Jed Martin, a mostly disaffected guy who escapes his own anomie at several key junctures only to land squarely back in the land of blah again and again. Martin negotiates relationships with his aging father, with a beautiful (of course!) Russian executive, and with his art, at one point in his career becoming well-known for photographing Michelin maps, and then turning his attention to the subject of what people do for a living. In this incarnation he paints double portraits of Jeff Koons with Damien Hirst, and Steve Jobs with Bill Gates. Yes, Houllebecq covers a vast swath of contemporary cultural life in this book, and he does it in a deadpan, easy-to-read way.

Houllebecq won the Prix Goncourt for this novel in 2010, and there was something of an international outcry. Some people love him, it seems, and some people hate him. Apparently he is quite ill-behaved in real life, and it is not hard to surmise he is actually a very depressed and alienated man. Well, so be it. I enjoyed every bit of the book and marvel at its narrative magic. The territory – life, reality, our physical selves, so often burdensome and yet the necessary vehicles for our consciousness. The map – linear depictions of getting from here to there, the lay of the land, art – how brave and inadequate are our strivings to express what all this feels like. The very elusiveness of the conjunction between map and territory make for a wonderful foray into matter that does so very often seem gray.

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