Submission by Michel Houellebecq
translated by Lorin Stein
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 2015. 256 pp
Reviewed by Bobby Fischer
Much has been made over an interview in The Guardian in which Michel Houellebecq answers the question of whether or not he’s Islamophobic by saying, “Yes, probably.” It is under these circumstances that his new novel, Submission, has been released. And it’s under these circumstances, maybe, that his new novel has to be read. It’s a narrative of the near future, in which the Socialist party of France has teamed up with the Muslim Brotherhood in order to defeat Marine Le Pen and the far right National Front. As Mohammed Ben Abbes, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, is elected prime minister, the novel’s narrator François witnesses a change to the DNA of France. François is a professor at the Sorbonne, where under this new Islamic regime, teachers are let go (with generous pensions) if they do not convert to Islam. The unemployment rate rapidly shrinks as women leave the workforce, giving more room for men. Polygamy becomes the norm.
Leading up to these changes François is a shallow, lazy character whose achievements are either sexual or academic. It’s here that Houellebecq is at his best—where he finds kinship with authors like Kingsley Amis and Philip Roth—in depicting the coldness of academic life and joyless sexuality that functions like commerce. François is portrayed as the victim of culture’s two biggest broken promises: that happiness can be achieved through intelligence or sex. François has enough of both, though neither has worthwhile depth. His relationships are sexual without the warmth of love; his academic regard is established on old accomplishments, specifically an expertise in obscure-ish French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans. The rise of Islam doesn’t interfere with François’ goals on either front, as long as he converts. While this qualifies as a conflict, our hero lacks any real ideology so the struggle is minimal and there’s never any real question about the outcome.
As François navigates France pre-election, he’s faced with the normalized violence of extremist groups as each moves toward their perceived victory. Masked figures stalk the streets holding machine guns. Bombs go off. Nobody much cares. Nobody seems scared. Houellebecq paints the rise of French Islam as the normalization of violence. The right wing gets off a bit easier, maybe because ultimately they lose. Here’s where in some ways we inch toward a meaningful point. Submission is an astute novel about political power and the pitfalls of compromise—as political power moves away from the center so does everyone else; it’s impossible to maintain a central balance if a loss means capitulating to the most radical version of your opponent’s side. Unfortunately, Houellebecq’s arguments here against Islam are shallow and necessarily strawman. Our protagonist is too uninterested politically to question the assertions the text makes about the reality of political Islam. It’s a convenient and partially genius escape that Houellebecq has created for himself. If your characters don’t really care about the novel’s circumstances—and indeed, François’ major concern here is that the rise of Islam means that he’ll have less flesh to ogle on the streets—then the author doesn’t have to engage at a meaningful level with the text’s subject matter. It is both a reflection of reality, where selfish desires drive confirmation bias, and a gutless way to present what is essentially a satirical novel of ideas.
Houellebecq pursues this path by pre-addressing critical reactions and accusations of the conclusions that he draws. He does this by allowing Submission’s ’s ideological compass to echo the literary history that our narrator has made a life out of. François’ expertise in Huysman presents the book almost as a map to Huysman’s career. His early Naturalism, juxtaposed with Emile Zola and depicted as purity, is dismissed by academia as artless for telling it nakedly like it is. As Huysman’s work evolves into satire so to does Submission. Houellebecq is de facto presenting Submission, perhaps contradictorily, as these two things: naturalism and satire. In doing so he’s addressing academic and “politically correct” criticism that dismisses the author for his themes and conclusions. He’s both telling it like it is and exaggerating the truth for comedic effect.
So is Michel Houellebecq Islamophobic? In his own words, “Yes, probably.” It often appears that he’s writing from the point of view of fear for the future as our narrator stumbles idiotically through his personal pain while the political background subtexts what the author perceives as our own fears. Like most political writers, he’s trying to scare us. Are there reads that can present Michel Houellebecq as not Islamophobic? Yes, probably.
It’s worth noting that submission here has a triple meaning: (1) the Arabic translation of the word “Islam,” which literally means “submission,” (2) the submission that our narrator and all of France undergo in the face of this political shift, and (3) the submission that both our narrator and the Islam of the text require of women. It’s probably the second that interests Houellebecq the most, but the third that provides the Submission’s most interesting read. If the Islam that he’s presenting as oppressively misogynistic offers an honest reflection of every other patriarchal society in western culture—if François is a representative of western culture—the eventual and inevitable conversion of our narrator comes because it appeals to his basic rotten masculinity. The critique here then isn’t necessarily of Islam, but of culture that creates and exploits power dynamics for selfish, stupid reasons. So all culture then. This is the new boss. Same as the old boss. Carry on as you were.