Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, “Submission,” imagines a France in 2022 that is simultaneously shockingly unrealistic and surprisingly probable. Rioters light cars on fire. Women cannot wear clothes that expose their bare legs. A middle-aged university administrator has several wives, one of them a teenage girl. Up to this point, protagonist and college professor François is preoccupied with sleeping with his students and obsessing over 19th-century French decadent author J.K. Huysmans. But François’s story has changed with the French political landscape, and he is plunged into a world of uncertainty along with the plot. Through careful use of satire and character, Houellebecq achieves in this novel a vision of a future rife with ambiguity, to much success.
Houellebecq begins his study of a confused French society by examining the career and personal life of the novel’s narrator—the jaded, melancholic academic François. From François’s disillusioned perspective, “Submission” goes on to explore a world of political instability. The presidential election season is a heated and close race between three parties—the far-right National Front, leftist Socialist Party, and the infant Muslim Brotherhood. François, distracted by his romantic affairs and Indian microwave dinners, watches the events in boredom. When the National Front gains popularity, the Socialists and other left-wing groups ally themselves with the ultimately victorious Muslim Brotherhood, creating a new Western society under Islamic law with conventions that force François to choose between conversion to Islam for a lucrative academic advancement and his solitary life of freedom. Such a premise treads dangerous territory—one that could easily fall within the bounds of Islamophobia. Surprisingly, Houellebecq, despite having avowed his hatred of Islam, successfully stays away from writing a sensationalized novel by maintaining a level of ambiguity and ensuring that such convictions do not seep into the novel’s social commentary.
In fact, for a satire, “Submission” is relatively tame, or rather its satire manages to evade the gaudy, caustic character present in most works of the genre. Houellebecq’s critique of society—be it the Islamic order he imagines or the Western world as readers know it—is muted, at times even imperceptible in its sardonic nature. He accomplishes this effect by immersing the political and social commentary within his hero’s scholarly ruminations, particularly on Huysmans. Meanwhile, events that should produce reactions of horror deliberately receive little emphasis. For instance, the changes implemented by the new president Ben Abbes are met with little fanfare. François returns to Paris after the election, observing indifferently that “The biggest change, a subtle one, was in the shoppers themselves.” This detached tone is not detrimental to the novel; in actuality, it elevates Houellebecq’s critique to a higher level when he explicitly comments on the situation, whether seriously or satirically. “A transformation was indeed under way,” François later notes. “There’d been a fundamental shift. Several hours of channel surfing revealed no further changes, but then soft-core porn had gone out of fashion years before.” Francois’s comment is as misplaced as is his concern for sex instead of for his fragile country, but such moments, ridiculous in their skewed priorities, break the realism that Houellebecq constructs. By subduing his satire, Houellebecq encourages his audience to submit to his theoretical world, only to dismantle it through dry humor or unexpected exaggeration. In that way, “Submission” becomes more provocative and powerful; its acerbic critique, when it does come, feels more like a punch than a slap to the face.
As middle-aged professor at the University of Paris III, the flawed but intelligent François is the perfect vehicle for Houellebecq’s satire, providing most of the jarring one-liners that give the book humor, but he also drives the novel’s themes forward. “You’ve always had this weird kind of honesty, like an inability to make the compromises that everyone has to make, in the end, just to go about their lives,” Myriam, his last girlfriend, tells him. Such a characterization—one of resistance and obstinacy—is significant for a novel whose title is “Submission.” In fact, François’s development as an aimless character desiring happiness becomes even more significant as the new authorities try to convince him to submit and convert to Islam for fulfillment. As he talks with Rediger, the new university president who received his position due to being a convert, Rediger argues, “The shocking and simple idea, which had never been so forcefully expressed, [is] that the summit of human happiness resides in the most absolute submission.”
Houellebecq reinforces the ambiguity of his text through his compelling but simple writing. He is not intent on constructing lyrical phrases, and the novel’s best sentences derive strength from the boldness of the ideas expressed therein. “Europe had already committed suicide,” Rediger declares, using the intensity of his diction to explain his conversion to Islam. Such lines reveal an author aware of the effect that his language can have. This awareness becomes most evident in the last chapter, which presents the resolution to François’s decision to convert or not convert to Islam. Surprisingly, however, Houellebecq switches from using past tense to employing the conditional tense: The chapter starts with the phrase, “A few more weeks would go by.” Instead of coming to a close, the novel continues to perpetuate uncertainty about François’s choice and presents it as a situation as hypothetical as the novel’s political setting. The last chapter emphasizes the ambiguity that defines the entire novel—it leaves not only the protagonist’s fate unanswered but also provides little solution to the political and social issues that the novel posits.
In this way, Houellebecq’s “Submission” is an engrossing, philosophical addition to his repertoire. Despite its engagement of a potentially explosive subject matter, the story considers the situation with care and space, allowing readers to question and think about his imagined society. “In the same way,” François says, “to love a book is, above all, to love its author: we wish to meet him again, we wish to spend our days with him.” While Houellebecq’s latest novel might not win adoration everywhere, it is nevertheless riveting enough to warrant an afternoon with the author.
—Staff writer Ha D.H. Le can be reached at email@example.com.