Michel Houellebecq

For some, a new Houellebecq is the only event that approaches the childhood memory of a new Famous Five. You know exactly what you’re going to get, with variations of order and tone: then, suspicious foreigners on the heath and lashings of ginger beer, now, male despair and prostituted sex, with an inevitable absence of finality. Not only are Houellebecq’s books about disappointment, they usually disappoint. 

François is a professor of literature at the Sorbonne, an expert on the work of 19th-century unclassifiable Joris-Karl Huysmans, whose great work À rebours (Against the Grain) features a nobleman, des Esseintes, who closets himself away to create perfect moments of sensuousness – a pipe organ that delivers liqueurs in various flavours, a trip to England that takes place in a faux English pub in Calais. Husymans tracked his way back to childhood faith and Catholic piety; François has no such option. Life ended when he handed in his dissertation and entered the world of work – a frightening solitude that no one acknowledges, as he remarks. He has no friends to speak of, and each year he has an affair with a student. 

Around him, France is in crisis. It’s 2022, we learn, and the election has come down to a struggle between the Front National and a new party, the Muslim Brotherhood. François’ apathy about politics is disturbed the day after the Brotherhood’s victory, when the university is closed and he is offered a generous pension to piss off. As the Brotherhood creates a government blending religious conservatism and family-centred society with a strong market ethic, François finds himself falling through an anomie so strong, not even anal sex with call girls can lift it.

He’s des Isn’ts, the anti-Huysmans, cutting with the grain of our lives. When offered an appointment, in the now Saudi-funded Sorbonne, he converts and is assigned two wives from the freshly hijab-wearing female student body, grateful to be relieved of the life-draining demand of public sexuality. After all, everything is submission – of a thesis, to an image culture, to an atomised society – and our model has failed. Who’s to say this one submission will not free us from all the others?

You’ll notice that, as with the Famous Five, we don’t hear much from the girls – so the full reversal remains unachieved. Satire? Yes, but not of Islam. Houellebecq is the sort of writer whose books you can’t put down – or never pick up. If you like it in lashings, I submit you should submit.  XS

William Heinemann, 256pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 26, 2015 as "Michel Houellebecq, Submission ".

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Reviewer: XS