The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq

It’s just as well that I don’t judge books by their covers because let’s face it, this cover of the hardback English language version of Michel Houellebecq’s ‘The Map and the Territory’ is pretty bad.  Happily, the contents are more rewarding as the enfant terrible of modern French literature has produced his most innovative work yet.  Perhaps more subtly provocative than his previous novels, ‘The Map and the Territory’ follows the story of Jed Martin, a French artist who discovers fame by taking photographs of Michelin maps and completing a series of portraits of people and their professions whilst dealing with personal crises such as his father’s illness.  Houellebecq includes himself as a fictional character in the book working on the text of Martin’s exhibition guide and his comical self-caricature is one of the most amusing aspects of the novel.  In spite of its more subdued tone, the themes of social isolation and ageing are familiar along with the presence of Houellebecq’s characteristically bleak, dense and satirical style of writing which, having also looked at the original French text, hasn’t been lost in translation in English.  His accurate portrayal of 21st century Paris is also refreshing in a literary world which continues to be saturated with idealised imaginings of the city.  ‘The Map and the Territory’ probably won’t win Houellebecq any new fans (not that he probably gives a shit anyway) but does confirm that he truly is a one-off in the contemporary French literary scene and a worthy winner of the Prix Goncourt.

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