Submission by Michel Houellebecq
Published by William Heinemann
It is no accident (or indeed, surprise) that Michel Houellebecq’s new novel feels labyrinthine, in spite of its mere 250-page length. This is the work of a writer existing in a calm geostationary orbit above the inflammatory world of his subject matter, picking out his narrative and themes with cool, almost detached precision. The author’s much-discussed tropes are all there – the failure of modern man, the imminent collapse of the modern world, the broiling sexuality which underlies everything – but never before have they been brought into such sharp focus, and with such economy.
The plot is simultaneously a PR dream and nightmare for the publisher – in a near-future France teetering on the edge of civil war, the Muslim Brotherhood sweeps to power, led by the charismatic and politically astute Muhammed Ben Abbes. Women become veiled, polygamy reigns, academic institutions find themselves transformed by Islamic values and Saudi oil money – all of which coincides with a marked reduction in crime and a new economic optimism.
At the centre of the novel’s political whirlwind is the middle-aged academic François, a typically Houellebecqean anti-hero suffering from a total lack of social, sexual and professional motivation. An expert in the work and life of the nineteenth-century novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans (expertly paralleled with the protagonist by Houellebecq), François watches with placid indifference as his life begins to unravel; his parents abruptly die, his sometimes-girlfriend moves away, his body gives way to minor ailments and his sex drive, occasionally stirred by prostitutes, is all but extinguished. Like much of Houellebecq’s work, Submission is the story of a man in free-fall; what the book does with such particular verve is to examine how an earthquake in politics might or might not resurrect such an individual.
Submission is many things, but it is not anti-Islam. Nor is it particularly pro-Islam. In one of the book’s defining sections, François speaks to a fellow academic and Muslim convert who, without a trace of hysteria or polemic, describes polygamy as a simple case of natural selection in action. Islam, he argues, may be destined for European and subsequently world domination, but this is nothing more sinister than the evolution of the human species – the latest development in the boom and bust of our civilization. Whether Houellebecq himself sees the new regime as the beginning of a boom or bust is open for debate, but there is no denying the book’s strange persuasive power in recommending the former over the latter. The novel’s opening chapters, depicting the opening salvos between Marine Le Pen’s National Front and Ben Abbes’ Brotherhood, have a nightmarish, twilit quality to them, chillingly conveyed in a scene in which a convivial faculty garden party is silenced by distant gunfire and muffled bomb blasts. Once the Brotherhood comes to power, however, an uncanny calm descends upon the narrative, contrasted only by François’ continued descent into turmoil. We may sense Houellebecq looking askance at the teenage second and third wives that he describes in the new regime, but there is little to hide his quiet admiration of a movement which seizes its own destiny, which brings the past to bear in a chaotic present, and which offers meaning in a life rendered meaningless by consumerist pursuits.
Science fiction it may be, but Submission is never anything but utterly convincing; the author wielding politics, religion and academia with the same deftness with which he handles science in Atomised and big business in Platform. It is an important book, a book which splashes colour onto issues nearly always painted in black and white – and it demands your immediate attention. Lazy journalism labels Michel Houellebecq as simply a provocateur, but perhaps that comes with the territory. It’s difficult to describe an author operating as he does, on a level far exceeding that of his contemporaries.
James Lewis has a BA in English Studies and MA in Theatre Research from the University of Nottingham. He works in the publishing industry (and no, not the publisher of Submission). You can find him in west London and on Twitter @JamesJLewis.