Who’s Afraid of Submission?

Eiffel Tower

In Michel Houellebecq’s Submission (2015), France is turned into an Islamic theocracy. A review.

Every now and then, there’s this one book (or film) that everyone talks about: Many will have read it, many more will pretend to have done so, but only few people won’t have an opinion on it. For some reason, these trends often move me quite late. And so it comes that I just spent two days devouring Michel Houellebecq’s hugely controversial 2015 novel, Soumission (or Submission, as I read Lorin Stein’s translation into English, in order to spare myself about a month’s worth of dictionary research—and a lot of grey hair). Well, now that I’m done, it’s time for a belated review.

Submission is, essentially, a piece of political satire, flavored with a dash of dystopia. The novel is narrated from the first-person point of view of a middle-aged academic named François. Cynical, disillusioned and nihilistic, François, in a sense, embodies much of what Houellebecq suggests might be problematic in our Western world: a lack of sense of direction, a lack of spiritual foothold, and, above all, a lack of values characterize the life of the novel’s protagonist; his depression becomes an allegory for the depression of Western civilization.

In both this approach and the voice that Houellebecq gives his narrator, the effect of Submission is remarkably similar to that of Breat Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991)—minus the gory parts. What is particularly consternating about Houellebecq’s protagonist, though, is that he is a scholar of literature, and a respected expert in his field at that. The backdrop to the narration, consequently, isn’t the supposedly empty, self-perpetuating money industry that Ellis depicts, but the world of high education, polite conversation, and aesthetic sensibilities. It is wonderfully ironic that Houellebecq takes this humanistic canvas and places a character on it that is as nihilistic as they come:

My afternoon seminar was exhausting. Doctoral students tended to be exhausting. For them it was all just starting to mean something, and for me nothing mattered except which Indian dinner I’d microwave (Chicken Biryani? Chicken Tikka Masala? Chicken Rogan Josh?) while I watched the political talk shows on France 2.

This contrast of an environment with potentially endless intellectual stimuli and someone who seems to have abandoned even the idea of stimulation makes Submission a very comical read throughout. Indeed, Houellebecq’s pitch-black humor is probably one of the main reasons his novel flows so well. One of the other reasons for this is certainly the almost overwhelming amount of foreshadowing that he employs in order to instill a growing sense of unease in the reader. His constant mentioning of metereological conditions (this black kind of cloud, that bad weather front, etc.) is certainly far from subtle—but it is efficient. Thus, Submission almost feels like a thriller at times, filling its reader with frightful anticipation.

The thunderstorm – that is, the dystopian (or: utopian?) turn of events – finally comes after the French Presidential elections—not this year’s, but the ones in 2022: In a run-off between the (real-life) right-wing populist Marine Le Pen and the (fictitious) Muhammed Ben Abbes, candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, the latter ascends to power, supported somewhat desperately by the political left. Overnight, France is under the control of an Islamic traditionalist, and the bringing-in-line of the French state with Islamic law and tradition begins.

Now, what I expected here – and that, of course, has to do with the fact that Submission is such a much-discussed book, and that I consequently brought a bag full of anticipations to the read – was a detailed account of how public life slowly changes, how society reacts to and deals with this utterly new situation. I expected to witness how the French nation, secular and proud of its laicism as it is, is gradually turned into a theocracy.

Houellebecq in 2016. Photo credit: see below.

However, surprisingly little of all this can be found in Submission: The election itself takes place only about halfway into the novel, and its effects on society at large are portrayed rather sketchily, almost sloppily. Polygamy is institutionalized (to the fascination of the sexually frustrated protagonist), women begin to wear veils (to his dislike), and faculty meetings become all-male gatherings. Otherwise, most of the political ramifications of this unprecedented event are hidden from the view of the reader. In other words: Houellebecq, sadly, fails to really cash in on the tension he’s been building throughout the first half of the novel. (That this might be part of his point, focalizing his narration through as alienated a character as François, is, of course, entirely possible.)

Finally, the novel’s most interesting part with respect to the political dimension of its plot is also the one that’s wrought in the most artistically lazy fashion: Houellebecq brings in a new character who acts as a kind of deus ex machina, laying out to François the reasons for the superiority of Islamic culture over Western liberalism and secular humanism. The ensuing conversation between the two characters indeed touches on a lot of interesting points, as do the protagonist’s reflections in the aftermath of it. Yet, it is rather dissatisfying to the reader that Houellebecq squeezes pretty much his entire novel’s arsenal of political and philosophical debate into twenty or so pages near the end of it. This also includes the principal thesis that the idea of Submission is based on but that is only verbalized near its close:

The facts were plain: Europe had reached a point of such putrid decomposition that it could no longer save itself, any more than fifth-century Rome could have done. This wave of new immigrants, with their traditional culture – of natural hierarchies, the submission of women and respect for elders – offered a historic opportunity for the moral and familial rearmament of Europe. These immigrants held out the hope of a new golden age for the old continent.

These are, of course, highly controversial suggestions, but one weirdly gets the feeling that Houellebecq doesn’t actually engage with them, that he keeps himself at a mysterious distance at all times. The rise and decline of civilizations; the new, contemporary struggle for ideological dominance on a global scale; the pride and problems of Western liberalism: all important issues, but all of them are touched upon so very briefly and sketchily by Houellebecq. Essentially, he throws us a bone and lets us chew at these ideas for ourselves.

In the end, this is perhaps the biggest merit of Submission: that it dares to ask those big questions that have the power to shake our entire world view—and that it stubbornly holds back on any answers. Whether Houellebecq himself is an apologist of the religious right, of patriarchy and traditional values, or whether he asks us to fight for liberalism and universal humanism seems, to me, beside the point (and actually I have trouble reading any authorial stance into his novel): Submission isn’t controversial for any kind of proselytism, but rather because it shakes us up and confronts us with uncomfortable ideas that, otherwise, get too little attention in the self-stabilizing debates of our times. It is nothing more and nothing less than the succès de scandale (an expression Houellebecq and Stein have taught me) that it seeks to be. It has offended many people and will continue to do so—but, for all its self-content overstepping of boundaries, it certainly serves to provoke a reaction, and – who knows – maybe even a sustainable debate. It isn’t, in short, a perfect novel, but it is an efficient provocation.

So I guess that’s why everyone talked about it, anno 2015.

Michel Houellebecq (2015): Submission. Translated by Lorin Stein. London: Vintage. 251 pages.

Author image by Luiz Munhoz / Fronteiras do Pensamento, licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0.

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