A revelation for all who follow the controversial French novelist, whether they love or loathe him.
Houellebecq is “a loner with strong misanthropic tendencies,” “a tired old decadent” and a “tortured wreck, "who “stank a little, but less than a corpse.” At least these are descriptions of a character called “Michel Houellebecq” in the latest novel by the author who shares that name (Platform, 2003, etc.), though the narrative might well inspire readers to temper that caricature of the “real” Houellebecq. Where the novelist has been accused of trafficking in themes such as sex tourism and moral nihilism for shock value, here he achieves a richness and resonance beyond previous work, while continuing to explore free-market economics and how they pertain to artistic value and moral value. The character who shares his name even “seemed happy,” shockingly enough, though he keeps his emotional distance from the author, much as he has from readers. Instead, the novel gets deeper beneath the skin of its protagonist, the visual artist Jed Martin, whose career it chronicles from his years as a photographer, whose enlargement of Michelin maps, combined with images from the places mapped, inspire an exhibition titled “THE MAP IS MORE INTERESTING THAN THE TERRITORY.” Martin then switches to painting, woodshedding for a decade, emerging with the “Series of Simple Professions,” hailed for masterworks such as “Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology” (having destroyed another titled “Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market." Somehow, the novel’s fictional biography encompasses a tender romance, a meditation on the function and value of art and a police procedural. Both loners, the painter and the novelist, whom Martin commissions to write catalogue copy and whose portrait he paints, feel some affinity for each other, as they suspect that they might be kindred spirits, or even become friends. What they most share, it seems, is “something that did not exist in H Houellebecq, nor in him: a sort of familiarity with life.”
Very smart, very moving and occasionally very funny.