Michel Houellebecq’s latest effort is a strange little novel. At 240 pages, Submission is full of the characteristic wit and charm we’ve come to expect from Houellebecq, but somehow doesn’t quite feel like a modern novel. For one thing, the plot is threadbare, using instead a “what if” scenario concerning the election of a Muslim party to French office as a backdrop to muddle through. While not Islamophobic, it does offer a satirical conceit that Houellebecq uses in order to explore and poke fun at white male privilege and how feeble its constructs are.
As violence and tensions escalate, we watch the sad-sack academic narrator, Francoise, already feeling dissatisfied with his romantic and scholarly achievements, travel, drift, and ruminate on the way he’s spent his life. It’s an intimate book, one that gives a great deal of space to its central character to make meaning out of upheaval in his country and life. In a way, an apt cousin to the book might be Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, albeit with with less gristle and darkness.
The prose, which never fails to be consistent and accessible, continues to impress page after page. Even when the book hits a wall—which it occasionally does when entering into political discussion—the writing is always clear and fluid, parsing out clunkier or more dense explanations in favor of brevity.
While this is due to Houellebecq’s talent as a novelist, credit must also be given to Lorin Stein, who translated the French on his days and nights away from The Paris Review. Translation is a tricky feat, and Stein manages to keep the story moving along without having the writing lose its edge or mangling points more specific to French culture.
Concerning a speech from moderate Muslim Brotherhood candidate Ben Abbes, Houellebecq explains, “I’d often noticed how even the most tenacious, aggressive reporters went soft in the presence of Ben Abbes, as if hypnotized. And yet it seemed to me there were some tough questions to be asked — about the ban on coeducation, for example, or the fact that teachers would have to convert to Islam. But wasn’t that how it already was with Catholics?”
Perhaps the highest achievement of the text is the way it manages to be a satire with a core of deep humanism running through it. Houellebecq never shows great hatred or frustration with his academic creation, opting instead for sympathy and the expression of pain that becomes comedy, with lines like, “What little private tutoring I’d done, to raise my standard of living, soon convinced me that the transmission of knowledge was generally impossible, the variance of intelligence extreme, and that nothing could undo or even mitigate this basic inequality.”
Blunt and cavalier throughout, Francoise embodies old-world male ideology, supporting the patriarchy and casually mentioning that he’s thankful the Chinese kept out blacks in Chinatown once the Muslim Brotherhood wins the vote. However, these are exactly the sort of values that keep him lonely, and for all of his posturing and macho bravado, Francois quietly worries about the kinder people in his life and feels concern for the soul of his country.
It’s not a stretch to view his trips to the country or religious sanctuaries as a way to connect with the ancient beauty of France. An expert on the spiritual realist writer Joris-Karl Huysman, Francois seeks some modicum of comfort in visiting the monastery where his hero lived and wrote. While no solace is found, he comes to marvel at his nation’s beauty, fearing that it might vanish at any minute under the direction of the new political regime.
This lends a quietness to the novel, an intimacy that’s hard to find in other stories, with Francois coming to terms with the Muslim-mandated changes, explaining, “Women were wearing a new garment, a kind of long cotton smock, ending at mid-thigh, which eliminated any objective interest in the tight pants that some women might potentially wear; as for shorts, these were obviously out of the question. The contemplation of women’s asses, that small, dreamy consolation, had also become impossible.”
While this may seem a bit crass, one of the primary functions of the novel is to play with the idea of societal change, and how those changes threaten male expectations. Other writers may attempt it, but their characters often try to reach through history to something beyond. Francois might be reaching, but he has no idea what he might be searching for—or what might be searching for him.
Despite its strengths, there are faults in the book, such as the way Houellebecq handles characterization. Deeply present-minded, we’re offered the characters as they are, with little- to- no fleshing out or psychological interrogation. This helps the narrative along, but hinders their value. Miriam, a young Jewish grad student who leaves France in order to avoid despair at the hands of the Muslim regime, is billed as the great love of Francois’ life, despite only having two real attributes: she’s sexy and kind.
This casts Francois not as a heartbroken and stoic man of letters, but as a nearly pathetic individual. There are no stakes, save for intellectual, that offer tension to the story. For all of its political implications, even when there are changes in place and death immediately in the streets, any real threat to Francois seems muted and far away.
This safe space allows him to drift through the narrative without much issue. Here, the other characters are slightly shoddy two-dimensional creations that serve to populate Francois’ life and assist him without much setback. While Houellebecq might be commended for this deeply felt satire, there’s a great emptiness in the way it plays out.
The way the story ends is also problematic, which sees Francois converting to Islam. After his life comes apart both professionally and romantically due to political change, he succumbs in order to fit into the new version of his country. This all reads as a bit pat, a way for Houellebecq to conclude the novel without having to bother with the confrontations of Francois’ true inner beliefs and unchangeable convictions, which seem agnostic at best.
When visiting the Chapel of Our Lady in Rocamadour, Francoise pushes away any spiritual awakening, saying, “I was in a strange state. It seemed the Virgin was rising from her pedestal and growing in the air. The baby Jesus seemed ready to detach himself from her , and it seemed to me that all he had to do was raise his right hand and the pagans and idolators would be destroyed, and the keys to the world restored to him,” before immediately dismissing it as hunger.
This reluctance to engage with spirituality lends the conversion a strange quality, and seems to indicate that Francoise converted to stave off isolation and the possibility of suicide, rather than to experience a true movement of the soul.
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