My copy of Submission, the new Michel Houellebecq novel, is now on its way to me across the Atlantic on speedy Amazonian wings. It was officially published in France on Jan. 7, the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the day a grotesque caricature of him appeared on its cover. It has not yet been published in English, but reviews in the British press have already appeared, with plot summaries. Naturally, conversation is turning once again, as it has done with Charlie Hebdo itself, to whether Houellebecq is a progressive or a reactionary, an analyst or a racist. The nature of this novelist's work is so slippery, it shows how clumsy and broad these questions are.
The early reviews describe the book as a futurist fantasy or allegory in the style of 1984. In the France of the near future, a presidential election comes down to a close battle between the far-right, anti-immigration National Front and a moderate Islamic party. In an effort to fend off the neo-fascists, the people choose the more reasonable Muslims. Soon, all sorts of religious injunctions are imposed on an unprotesting French nation. But people don't mind so much: Saudi aid money is also poured into the university system, improving the standard of living of the sad-sack, withdrawn, sex-seeking, Houellebecq-like protagonist, a professor at the Sorbonne. He is also intrigued by the new legality of polygamy.
Predictably, the French left wing damned the book immediately as anti-immigrant fear-mongering; other critics say it is a satire of current national anxieties and takes no sides. Houellebecq once faced a number of lawsuits after declaring that Islam was the stupidest of religions (using almost exactly the words of Christopher Hitchens, who declaimed them repeatedly in the United States with no legal repercussions); now, Houellebecq insists he is not "Islamophobic" (meaning, presumably, racist, as opposed to anti-Islamist).
After the massacre, Houellebecq cancelled promotion of the book and disappeared for a few days. He only recently gave an interview, to a French TV station, in which he was unusually emotional. Through tears, he told an anchor on Canal Plus that he had been friends with one of the murdered, the economist Bernard Maris. (Maris had also praised Houellebecq in the past, writing in particular about Houellebecq's focus on economics in his fiction.)
The first thing that strikes one about Houellebecq's imagined future, in the wake of the anti-Islamic outrage now gripping Europe, is that he obviously got it exactly wrong. The French people will be in no mood for submission to Islam in the near future; the political chances of any pro-Islamic party just shrank from infinitesimal to non-existent. A more true-to-life dystopian Europe would probably look more nationalistic and bigoted, not more Muslim.
But that would be to look at satires such as these in inadequately simple terms. This is not futurist science fiction; its aim is not to predict Tomorrowland; its goal is to comment on current malaises. It does this by exaggeration. A great deal of satire uses the "slightly-in-the-future" trope in order to justify its out-of-whack setting. Houellebecq has leaped into the near future in several of his books, and he has never been called a speculative writer. (Compare Jennifer Egan, who used the same device in the deadly serious, non-genre A Visit from the Goon Squad, or Gary Shteyngart, who used the approach humorously in Super Sad True Love Story.) Orwell's 1984 was not really about an imagined 1984; it was about what was going wrong with 1948.
Critics have noted that the secular, democratic society that falls to Islam in Submission is hardly an idyll to start with: It is ugly, materialist, valueless and unfulfilling (as it is in every single other Houellebecq story). The lure of the spiritual is presented with some actual yearning.
Generally, it is impossible to categorize Houellebecq. He is an experimental writer who straddles fiction, polemic and pastiche and who is not afraid of having his characters regurgitate unedited chunks of Wikipedia prose. Reading him is an intellectual adventure, the heady experience of multiple artistic jokes.
As it happens, I just finished his previous novel, 2010's The Map and the Territory, the one that won the Prix Goncourt, and found it the most thrilling book of my past year. It is – you may be surprised to hear – primarily concerned with global economics and the effect that pervasive corporate advertising has on the psyche. (There is a little sex in it – a very little – but it, too, is largely discussed in economic terms.)
Its protagonist, a cold-fish artist called Jed Martin, makes a fortune by selling exquisite large-scale photographs of Michelin road maps. They are, he maintains, more interesting than the territory they represent. He is immediately sponsored by the giant Michelin company, which is also in the business of promoting luxury travel and dining, because of its famous food guides. Almost everything in the book is a kind of fraud, a PR façade, an ad for something that doesn't exist. The French countryside specializes in authentic, old-fashioned rural experiences only to cater to wealthy Chinese tourists; the most critically regarded art in the country is an ad for a tire manufacturer.
After a while, Jed abandons his map photos to turn to naturalistic paintings of people in obsolete professions, then to fantasy tableaux involving powerful people – Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology. His art attacking contemporary dispositions of capital becomes his most successful ever, sold to the very capitalists it dissects.
What most of the characters discuss, in the most cogent and amusing terms, is how the movements of money cause almost every aesthetic and social manifestation of modern life. Then they all die.
Formally, it is a hall of mirrors: One of the characters is a novelist called Michel Houellebecq, who talks at length (to the visual artist, who is just like him) about what it's like to be Michel Houellebecq. Then the novelist is savagely murdered (by, it turns out, someone psychopathically acquisitive; this person's motivation hardly differs from anyone else's). The writing of this murder is an act of literary suicide that may now have taken on an eerie tinge.
People say these characters are awful. I like being in their presence: Their realism, their clear-eyed pragmatism are reassuring in a world of hogwash. Is this work ideologically conservative? Yes, in some ways (particularly in its helpless sexism); in other ways it is classically Marxist, a reading of globalized capitalism that is purely critical. But an ideological critique misses so much of it. Houellebecq knows this: When told he might be serving the purposes of anti-immigration leader Marine Le Pen, he said, "The person who succeeds in using me to their advantage hasn't yet been born. Let her try."
Submission is currently at the top of French Amazon's bestseller list.