It is hard to review this book without mentioning Charlie Hebdo, as it was released in France on the same day as the shooting last January, and there were quite a lot of people that seemed to somehow blame the book for the tragedy.
Michel Houellebecq is not without enemies, that is for sure, mainly because of his insistence on dealing with issues of current concern that are a bit too near the surface for some. For instance, in his latest, Submission, he delves into the rise of racist nationalistic parties in Europe and their effects on society.
Houellebecq of course takes it all a good step further, and here the nationalists come to have to compete with the rise of Muslim politicians and parties. The latter seem the more sober bunch in comparison, and soon gather strength to the point of winning elections. France is rapidly becoming a conservative Muslim country, and it is this that Houellebecq lets his unhappy, unfulfilled, end-of-career Huysmans scholar François explore. Does he adapt, or perish?
Much of Houellebecq’s work is fixated on the silly, mindless side of male sexuality, and this book is no exception, only now with a Muslim slant on proceedings. François, like many of the writer’s lead characters, is a dysfunctional middle-aged male obsessed with having and not having sex. He is more or less unable to have proper relationships, and again it seems it is mostly society’s fault, as when he considers a radical change in lifestyle (such as converting to a conservative type of Islam) he suddenly blossoms; his life is made right by society returning to a male-centred and controlled universe where he is king, and women are submissive and given to him on a plate to do with as he pleases. Finally François sees a point in life.
Yet for all the arguments that Houellebecq’s male characters make, they are, even while perhaps discussing an intricate philosophical conundrum, echoingly empty. The women, on the other hand, are like a different species he cannot fathom in any way unless they are providing sexual pleasure (and then all is well in the world). In this book the most detailed woman is François’ ex Myriam, and she is not only autonomous and decisive, she even seems strong and borderline happy.
Houllebecq is a very interesting writer, not because he has been set up as an enfant terrible, but because he does not mind tackling issues that others eschew. However, this book feels like it’s been rushed, thus its thinking is shallower and less researched than usual. Hence a very narrow view of what being Muslim can mean. It probably should have stayed in the gestation stage a good while longer for it to really have something valuable to say on the issues it wants to address, so if you’ve never read Houellebecq before, don’t start here; try The Possibility of an Island instead.