Last summer, my wife and I spent eight days in Paris. In the weeks before the trip, I reserved museum tickets, planned a bicycle tour and researched restaurants that would appeal to our divergent diets (hers, vegetarian; mine, anything not nailed down). I also looked for something to read in a café with a glass of pastis — or, more likely, outside an airport 7-11.
An article by the Franco-Moroccan author Leïla Slimani in The New York Times recommended Michel Houellebecq’s 2010 novel, The Map and the Territory, for its delightfully dim view of contemporary France. By chance, we would be staying three nights in a comfortable section of Paris’ 13th arrondissement, where much of the novel is set. So, onto my Kindle it went.
The novel’s central character is Jed Martin, an artist famous for photographing Michelin maps of France. As the story begins, he looks vexedly at a painting he’s working on, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market. He can’t get his subjects to look right. A few days later, he takes a palette knife to Hirst’s eye, slashes the canvas and stomps it. Despite the violence, he feels at peace. “He had visibly reached the end of a cycle,” writes Houellebecq.
Jed is possessed by midlife ennui. He remains unmarried, though he has a brief, blissful relationship with Olga, who works for Michelin’s public relations office until she gets promoted to a position in Moscow. Jed has no siblings. His mother is long dead. He visits his aged, despairing father once a year for dinner on Christmas Eve.
While preparing for an exhibition of his work, Jed realizes he hasn’t “said a word for almost a month, except the ‘No’ he repeated every day to the cashier (rarely the same one, it has to be said) who asked him if he had the Club Casino loyalty card.”
This line gave me an odd bit of comfort as I walked around Paris alone while my wife attended a conference: I dreaded any human interaction, knowing it would out me as a foreigner — or idiot. I rehearsed my lines and gathered my courage before visiting a boulangerie. I could place an order but was befuddled any time a cashier asked a follow-up: “Cash or card?” “Would you like a bag?” In foreign territory, whether psychological or geographic, it can seem safest to withdraw into silence.
Jed finds a faint possibility of friendship in two men. First, a reclusive novelist named, yes, Michel Houellebecq agrees to sit for a portrait and write catalog copy for Jed’s next exhibition. But the writer is eventually murdered and his body extravagantly dismembered. Soon after, Jed meets a police inspector, Jasselin, who investigates the crime. The moment for a deeper connection with him comes and goes, and Jed remains alone.
While reading the book in our hotel room, I bothered my wife with details. I’d poke her shoulder and say something like, “The protagonist’s apartment must be right by our hotel! Maybe even on our block!” Another time, I asked if she had seen a Franprix grocery store during her daily jog along the boulevard de l’Hôpital. She didn’t think there was one. “Well, there is in the novel!”
Other details connected me with the characters even as I felt like an alien in the city. Like me, Jasselin is in a long-term relationship with a university professor. And he always carries a Rhodia writing pad, believing that someone in his line of work should take at least one note a day, “to remain active, to maintain a minimum intellectual activity, for a completely inactive policeman becomes discouraged.” I had stocked up on the orange-covered pads at an office-supply store in the Latin Quarter. Now I knew what to use them for.
Beyond these coincidences, what has kept me thinking about The Map and the Territory are its philosophical themes. Most prominent is the notion that life proceeds (or retreats) in distinct stages. Windows of opportunity open and close, and discerning these occasions, while not the key to happiness, which for Jed is unattainable, is imperative as a universal commandment.
When Olga departs for Russia, Jed realizes he has entered a new stage in his life. He buys giant trash bags and discards all remnants of the map project that brought him fame. Years later, Olga returns, and Jed awakens from their night together in a state of sad clarity. The narrator observes, “there is a moment for doing things and entering a possible happiness, and this moment lasts a few days, sometimes a few weeks or even a few months, but it happens once and one time only, and if you want to return to it later it’s quite impossible.” Despite his genuine affection for Olga, he leaves her apartment without waking her, gone from her life for good.
Houellebecq is best known in the United States — infamous, perhaps — as the author of Submission, the 2015 novel that imagines France governed by an Islamist party. The word “Islam,” of course, means “submission.” Many have criticized that book as Islamophobic. But submission is not a negative concept in The Map and the Territory. When you recognize and react to the cycles and stages of existence, you’re practicing a secular form of surrender.
“[T]o be an artist,” Houellebecq writes of Jed’s philosophical outlook, “was above all to be someone submissive. Someone who submitted himself to mysterious, unpredictable messages.” The message might be that a map is a thing of beauty, that the painting you’re working on is trash, that a character must act in this specific way, whether you like it or not. Such intuitions might also command their recipient not only when to begin a new stage, but when to leave one.
Houellebecq seems to have taken this notion to heart. He announced in a note at the front of his most recent novel, Annihilation, that it would be his last. Like Jed, he’s walking away.
I feel conflicted about the idea. I have occasionally felt, usually in retrospect, being done with friendships, jobs, projects or habits. I played golf until, at the end of one round, I told myself that was it. I have had only one full-time job; it lasted through my 30s. I have no desire for another. I smoked a pack a day for a few years, then one New Year’s Eve, stubbed out what I knew would be my last. It was.
Yet I also feel pangs of regret. Isn’t it a virtue to see things through? Shouldn’t I have kept in better touch with my childhood friends? Shouldn’t I go to the next meeting of that community organization I drifted away from after a big project?
Jed’s approach is not the only one. Jasselin has been a policeman for 28 years, in a relationship with Hélène for nearly as long. My conscience tells me that the person, place or thing I’ve left might have something I still need. And one day I will find myself bereft of it.
Still, The Map and the Territory made me think the impulse toward being done might not be a vice. We may valorize commitment for its own sake because we overestimate the scope of our willpower. There may be a temporal order to things that’s beyond our control. Some things are meant to last; others are not, and those things are not worse for being shorter-lived.
You go to the party; you leave the party. You take the job; you leave the job. You move to a place; you move away. What you keep is the experience. You’ll always have Paris.
Jonathan Malesic’s essays have appeared in America, Commonweal, The New Republic and The New York Times. He is the author of The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives.