Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Dark Master of Invention

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Dark Master of Invention

Article excerpt

Byline: MELANIE McGRATH

THE MAP AND THE TERRITORY by Michel Houellebecq translated by Gavin Bowd (Heinemann, [pounds sterling]17.99) FROM the very first paragraph of this brilliant, often preposterous, Prix Goncourt winning novel, the reader can be in no doubt that they're in the blisteringly bleak, darkly inventive grand massif that is Houellebecq land. Its principal resident, artist Jed Martin, opens the book struggling (in vain as it turns out) to finish his painting, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing up the Art Market, while failing to connect with his ailing father and worrying about his broken boiler.

The artist's big break comes with his exhibition of photographs of Michelin maps, which are soon selling for absurd sums to the Russian, Chinese and Indian nouveaux riches. The maps, in turn, lead Martin to the delicious Olga, with whom he shares a robust sex life and the impossibility of any deeper engagement, Olga finding men "difficult to work out these days, not so much at the start, when miniskirts always worked -- but then they became more and more bizarre".

Things take an unexpected turn when Jed engages famous writer and contrarian Michel Houellebecq to write the blurb for his latest exhibition catalogue. All seems well, or as well as things ever get in a Houellebecq novel, until a detective, Inspector Jasselin, contacts Martin for help in solving a terrible crime.

Martin 's boiler, like his father, may be in need of repair, but there are no spare parts in this wry novel of ideas, where each element functions not so much as an emotional key (having no sense of the "authentic", Houellebecq is not terribly interested in feelings) but as a kind of Yorick's skull for the contemplation of ideas about artistic, physical and economic decline. Martin's most commercially successful project, his photographic maps, signal the ironic absence of any guide to 21st-century life in France. …

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