Apart from a brief (kind of) introduction and a slightly longer 'Epilogue' (actually named so), La Carte et le territoire is in three unnamed and almost equal parts: the first deals with Jed Martin's photographic career, the second his career as a painter and his relationship with Houellebecq, and the third is essentially a digressive detective story about the murder of Houellebecq and the solving of its mystery. Particularly in the first two parts, there are references to a number of people both real and imagined.
Jed Martin then is a the main character in the first part, which traces the artistic ascent of the single Jed Martin, who initially makes his name as a photographer of Michelin maps, in the process becoming the lover of the beautiful Russian girl Olga, who works for Michelin and both the girl and the company give their full support for what Jed is doing. When Olga decides to return to Russia for a much more remunerative post Jed declines to leave with her, although both parties are obviously upset by the split. And so ends what we might call the first part of Jed's artistic career.
The second part traces Jed's career as a painter, which is when he becomes associated with the self-confessed non-intellectual but entrepreneurial galeriste Franz: their partnership will bring in megabucks that allow Jed to retire as a near-recluse. Olga returns to Paris, but Jed considers that she will be better off without him. A vital element in the second part is Jed managing to secure Houellebecq's agreement to write the Introduction to Jed's forthcoming exhibition programme. This is where some of the book's amusement lies: in the exaggerated, self-deprecatory descriptions of the alcoholic Houellebecq, who lives as a virtual recluse in rural Shannon. Five to ten pages are all that are needed and the difficult Houellebecq has the choice between a lump sum of ten thousand euros or a painting by Jed. A portrait of the writer is decided on, which involves re-visiting him and taking many photos of this man who now glugs down Jed's four hundred euro wine as if it were plonk and is clearly not in an altogether sober or coherent state. But the exhibition proceeds after the writer puts together fifty pages, Houellebecq gets a painting worth very much more than the original fee in euros, and that's, well, not exactly the end.
The third part could have read as a straightforward detective story, only there are digressions that certainly wouldn't have been out of place in David Foster Wallace's fiction or non-fiction. There is a horrific murder of Michel Houellebecq, beheaded at his home along with his dog, and anatomical pieces are spread about the room as if they are art exhibits. (This means it's time for the reader to be told about the cop Jasselin's oligospermatic problems, and an explanation of the meaning, and the fact that he and his wife choose to have a dog instead, but although they succeed in getting their dog Michel to mate and produce Michou, they could no longer have a dog of the same family after that as Michou's testicles won't descend because his dad is too old. Ahh.) Anyway, the crime has no apparent motive, until towards the end a versed-in-art cop realises that a collector of rare insects as well as art has the portrait of Houellebecq, worth by that time maybe twelve million euros. Retirement time for Jed.
As so often with Houellebecq, there are a number of references to what it is like to live in the modern world of capitalism-gone-mad, of which these are only too examples: Jed listening for ever to the phone 'music' as he waits to put in a request for someone to service his heater, when the Croatian guy a few blocks away can do the job much faster and no doubt much cheaper; and the ludicrously cheap airline company that's not so cheap after various bits are added to the bill.
Right at the beginning of the novel we have the failed portrait of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst that Jed is forced to slash in frustration at being unable to get Koons' face right, although the painting of the meeting between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs is a highly lucrative seller. There are several references to writer and critic Frédéric Beigbeder, whom I'm sure Jed didn't paint, although there's mention of him as a Sartre for the 2010s. Well...
Well, the above comment may require absolutely no thought, or a great deal of it, although it takes me no thought at all to see this as the best novel by Houellebecq I've yet read. Which makes me feel a little squeamish about attacking Soumission so shortly after this – I have a few (maybe unfounded, admittedly) doubts about that one.
My other posts on Michel Houellebecq:
Michel Houellebecq: Platforme | Platform
Michel Houellebecq: Les Particules élémentaires | Atomised