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. So powerfully has representation been privileged over reality, that the very body of France, its much-vaunted terroir, has ceased to exert any meaningful existence in the world other than as a tourist commodity. The rapturous reception given to Martin's photos of maps simply goes to show that a concrete "there" no longer exists in any realm, geographical, human or otherwise.
"What can you reply, in general, to human questions?" asks Martin. Maybe that's why Houellebecq patrols his own novel as a man "never totally signed up" to his existence, for whom it is "rare … even to say a word to his dog".
Dystopian this world view may be, but bright, precise shards of ironic wit make it a scintillating read. In painting Jeff Koons, Martin bemoans the difficulty of representing the man "beyond the appearance of a Chevrolet convertible salesman that Koons had decided to display to the world". More prosaically, a sushi restaurant offers an "exceptional range of Norwegian mineral waters".The obsession with surface, with commodification, with signs that lead nowhere, with the impossibility of connection, bring to mind that great master of anomalies, JG Ballard, but Houellebecq is more ruthless.
It's worth getting past his irritating, self-conscious provocations, most notably his casual homophobia and sniggering, adolescent worship of exotic, Amazonian women (both remarkably reminiscent of the needy nerdiness of American cartoonist Robert Crumb), because, though it would pain him to read this, in a world of copycatting and fakery, Michel Houellebecq is an exceptional writer and a stand-out original.