Michel Houellebecq: butcher. Messy slaughterer of sacred cows. Disemboweler of all modes of political correctness, from the myth of the modern male’s respect for women to the laughable fiction of the liberal Westerner’s respect for non-Western cultures. That’s the story, anyway. Like most good stories, it isn’t true, for the most part; but Houellebecq, who enjoys a good yarn, and who is typically as impish as he is courageous, has done nothing to dispel it. Indeed he’s done his bit to spin it out—to spin, from straw spattered with dung hurled by his offended accusers, thread of pure gold.
His characters are, one and all, denizens of hell: of social hells, capitalist hells, and hells of their own devising. In those infernal regions, however, Houellebecq constructs utopias—terribly fragile, desperately ironic, but briefly beautiful. Michel, narrator of Platform, discovers wealth and romantic love via the industry of sex tourism, at least until his earthly paradise is destroyed by a group of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. Rudi, of Lanzarote, can’t hack free love, but does find a moment’s precious relief in a pedophiliac cult before his arrest. The comedian Daniel, in The Possibility of an Island, also fails in love but discovers the theoretical consolation of immortality in a cult of his own. It is true that in The Elementary Particles, the scientist Michel isn’t granted much of a personal utopia, but his suffering, muted as it is, does lead him too to the utopic discovery of a future immortality for mankind. Even the hapless artist Jed of The Map and the Territory, who can’t possibly recover from the trauma of seeing photographs of the flesh of the murdered Michel Houellebecq spattered about a room like the gobbets and driblets of a Jackson Pollock painting, manages to create in his last and greatest series of works a utopian vision of a technological world swallowed, as if in flames, by tongues of flickering vegetation.
Houellebecq, being scrupulous, cannot pretend to a better reality than ours; but he honors the sentimental vision of a paradise in which sex is more than commerce, conversation more than alienation, and life more than a decades-long holding of the breath in revulsion from the stench of inexorable death, by forcing his characters, in book after book, to destroy themselves brutally in search of that dreamland. Love, happiness, comfort, and freedom from boredom: those are his ideals, and a nice, bourgeois, universally appealing set of standards they are, too, with nothing perverse about them. If these fantasies go on rupturing, bleeding, and necrotizing, time and again, it’s not his fault; clearly, there’s something in the genetic code of those strains of fetishized existence, some ribonucleic aberration introduced by an ill-considered copulation with humankind that condemns them to a painful, messy, and inevitable demise.
Symptoms, not diseases, are what hurt us. Diseases would carry us off swiftly, blissfully unaware, or with a split second of surprise, if it were not for the merciless struggle the body undertakes in defense of itself. The symptomatic struggles of Houellebecq’s protagonists, even the most apathetic or fatalistic of them, are what give his novels both their savagery and their heroism. No one goes gentle into the night, even those who with seeming calmness and resignation fulfill the omnipresent urge toward suicide, like Isabelle, of The Elementary Particles, whose death is bitter with humiliation for her ruined, frigid body; or Jed’s father, in The Map and the Territory, who weeps in absurd, overmastering sorrow for the childhood grief he felt when sparrows forsook the nest he built for them. What marks Houellebecq’s newest book, Submission, as a departure right from the start could be guessed from the title itself—there is no struggle. Defeat here is easy, and it is sweet. There’s an enormous sadness in this, tremendously moving and meaningful for a reader of Houellebecq’s previous novels, but it isn’t a sadness contained in Submission itself. Only one who expects to find something cruel and vibrant and brave will experience the wrenching absence of those qualities; one who comes to the book without expectations will find only a flatness, a deadened simplicity, a perplexingly mild straightforwardness.
Set in the very near future, Submission relates through the first-person narration of the nationalistically named François the entirely civilized takeover of French government by the Muslim Brotherhood. Yes, there are a few fracases, deaths, and outbursts of armed violence; but on the whole the process of submission is electoral, and the citizens of France, right down to the nativists of the National Front, collude quite peacefully in their own cooption by the Islamic regime.
The first sign of trouble—from the reader’s perspective—occurs immediately, when Houellebecq reveals François’s occupation to be that of an academic. Is anything more damning? A professor of literature and a scholar of the Decadent novelist J.K. Huysmans, François undergoes the usual gamut of Houellebecqian afflictions: love that is unrequited, or unsatisfactorily requited; impotence with or numb disinterest in whores; a general sense of disconnection from or disdain for the world. Not much is at stake though. Thoughts of suicide strike François as “premature,” and he has little chance to explore his own consciousness, being fully relegated, for the first half of the book, to the role of transparent eyeball. He is not much more than a transcription device for lengthy conversations dominated by other characters about the Islamist ascendancy in French politics. An intimate knowledge of the French political landscape will help readers to feel somewhat engaged with these rather dreary chapters, in which it seems that Houellebecq has fallen prey to regret that the situation he proposes has not actually come to pass, so that he could simply write an essay about it. There’s little narrative here, and a great deal of tedious foregrounding. The ennui, of course, is not total: Houellebecq still manages, as always, to provoke unease, and those who arrive prepared to reject his anti-Arab sentiments will find themselves unsettled by how, exactly, they should react to his sarcastic treatment of a state in which secular education is to be abolished and the subjection of women is to become national policy. The fact that, presented with the dictums of financial and sexual self-interest, François swiftly succumbs to the lures of the new order is hardly a surprise. Not that Houellebecq intends for that to shock us—for once, shock value is nil. The sense of weariness, of enervated hopelessness, is smothering. This is the novel that Houellebecq should have titled Whatever.
In Platform, having just survived the terrorist attack that killed the love of his life, the narrator reflects:
It is certainly possible to remain alive animated simply by a desire for vengeance; many people have lived that way. Islam had wrecked my life, and Islam was certainly something I could hate. In the days that followed, I devoted myself to trying to feel hatred for Muslims. I became quite good at it, and I started to follow the international news again. Every time I heard that a Palestinian terrorist, or a Palestinian child or a pregnant Palestinian woman, had been gunned down in the Gaza Strip, I felt a quiver of enthusiasm at the thought of one less Muslim in the world. Yes, it was possible to live like this.
This is the stuff that inevitably earns Houellebecq the revilement of the liberal establishment; it’s also what compels readers’ complete belief in, and staggering empathy for, his narrator’s inestimable loss and sorrow. Not as provocative, but more subtle and malicious, is this from The Elementary Particles:
Relying on massive and unending immigration, the Muslim religion became stronger in the Western countries at practically the same rate as [the cult of] Elohimism; targeting as a priority the people of the Maghreb and black Africa, it had no less success with some “indigenous” Europeans, a success that owed itself uniquely to machismo. If the abandonment of machismo had effectively made men unhappy, it had not actually made women happy. There were more and more people, especially women, who dreamed of a return to a system where women were modest and submissive and their virginity was preserved. … In the space of a couple of decades, Islam thus managed to assume, in Europe, the role that had been Catholicism’s in its heyday: that of an “official” religion, organizer of the calendar and of mini-ceremonies marking out the passage of time, with dogmas that were sufficiently primitive to be grasped by the greatest number while preserving sufficient ambiguity to seduce the most agile minds, claiming in principle to have a redoubtable moral austerity while maintaining, in practice, bridges across which any sinner could be reintegrated.
As for Submission, though Islam may be its ostensible subject, it has nothing to offer on these levels: it is too exhausted even to despair; rage is out of the question. Even the passive act of dully observing the Islamization of French culture can be sparked in François only by the most basic of impulses: consumption and carnality.
Things were different in Italie 2. As I’d predicted, the Jennyfer store had disappeared, replaced by a kind of organic Provençal boutique offering essential oils, olive oil, and honey harvested from the garrigue. … Also, women’s clothing had been transformed. I felt the change right away, but I couldn’t put it into words. The number of Muslim veils had increased only slightly—it wasn’t that. I spent almost an hour walking around before it hit me: all the women were wearing pants. To visualize a woman’s thighs and to mentally reconstruct her pussy where the thighs intersect—a process whose power of excitation is directly proportional to the length of bare leg—was so involuntary and mechanical with me, so genetic you might say, that it took me a while to notice what was missing: no more dresses or skirts. 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. A transformation was indeed under way. There’d been a fundamental shift.
Undeterred by the smock and the veil, and indeed compelled by related misogynies of the new regime, François, like Huysmans, his academic subject, decides to become a religious convert. And, like Huysmans, François’s true métier is not refined spirituality, certainly not anti-materialist Decadence, but “bourgeois happiness … simple pleasures.” Almost the only stabs at characterization Houellebecq makes in the first half of Submission are in François’s reactions to whatever he’s eating, from inadequately microwaved meals that leave him depressed, to (later in the book) more inspiring food cooked by women—by a brilliant, sharp academic who has been forced into retirement by the usurpation of the university by the Muslim state, or by one of the several wives of his new boss. Of all the hugely flawed, deeply despicable, venomously wrongheaded humans Houellebecq has devoted himself to memorializing, François is the first to be so debased that he cannot even truly suffer. He eats; he drinks; he smokes; he fucks with mild, startled pleasure or with none at all; he admires the ordered lives and homes of other men; he looks up words in the dictionary; he composes a preface about someone else’s work; that’s all he does. You might say he is a collaborator, in the Vichy sense, in the usurpation of his own culture (but that’s xenophobic) or in the institutionalization of his own identity (but has he got one?)—those claims would go a step too far. Houellebecq has always gotten our goat by exposing (well, trumpeting) our malice, our ugliness, our universal shame, but the engines of those exposures have up to now been characters whose own internal chaos went far beyond the universal, or through whom the author drilled so far into the universal as to find a core of gorgeously unrecognizable primeval mire. Not even in Whatever did he so blatantly give us not a person but an Everyman. In Submission, François’s inertia and bland, generic lack of self are so stifling as to effectively prohibit the novel from functioning.
Was there any other choice? If, in Houellebecq’s view, the living beings of the world are no more than mouthpieces for accepted wisdom, moral vegetarians whose mediocre minds reject any idea with muscle, with blood; if we display no individual conviction, no intellectual courage, no character—how can he create characters from us, create anything other than two-dimensional ghosts of our one-dimensional selves? Submission is not scandalous, not atrocious. It’s not even interesting, except in its inevitable failure to be so. It’s a work of genius, sure—with Houellebecq, that goes without saying. But it’s not a slaughterhouse. It’s an upper-middle-class supermarket, brightly but not harshly lit, stocked with sushi, expensive cheeses, organic vegetables, olive oils, and honeys. It’s not food for thought. It’s an empty stomach. It’s heartbreaking. It’s utopia.