On the occasion of Michel Houllebecq’s Submission being released in English, I volunteered to read it in order to review it here. In fact, I refused to read Submission when it first came out in French, and I still approached the book begrudgingly. The short version? I hated it. At the ripe old age of 37, this is the first book since college I have had to finish even if I didn’t like it. It was painful, kids. For what it is worth, I read it in French because I usually read in French, if that changes anything for anyone.
One of the things I was wondering as I read it, is what is up with French writers lately? People complaining that the rentrée litteraire is weak sauce, that the 2014 Goncourt Prize list wasn’t “exciting” enough…well Houllebecq is a symptom of these times. He’s ok, I guess. But I found myself resorting to an old college trick reading this – I would reward myself with an M&M for every five pages I suffered through.
What it is about: A coalition government is formed in France in the not-so-distant future which brings an Islamic party to power and with it, the Islamization of public service and institutions. François Bayrou, the long-suffering third man in French elections and from a centrist background, is named Prime Minister by the new president, a Mohammed Ben Abbes, who beat Marine Le Pen of the national Front. François, the narrator, is a stereotypical boozy French intellectual who smokes too much. When the Muslims “take over” his girlfriend, who is Jewish, runs off to Israel. Because the university leadership is now Muslim and he is not, François no longer has a job. François is a specialist on the work of an obscure author, J.K. Huysmans. This is an extremely French book, all that is missing is Marcel Marceau and a baguette.
Who will like it: People who think they are very Francophile and very smart. Fans of Eric Zemmour. People who are convinced this has the potential to not be a work of fiction. Anyone who takes Michel Houllebecq seriously as an artist.
Who won’t like it: People who aren’t into Houllebecq’s casual patriarchy or misogyny. People who don’t think Islam is one big, bad monolith.
A review in the Guardian says Submission is “satire that’s more subtle than it seems.”. As was also pointed out in the Guardian’s review, Houllebecq takes aim at France’s “bloated institutions”- the one redeeming quality to this book for me is that everyone is a target, actually, so while I do think the primary goal of Houllebecq was to shit on Islam, he also takes the opportunity to shit on France, its institutions, its writers…at least he is equal opportunity. So I don’t think Submission is a work of satire, I think it is a very cynical and superficial work of fiction with a clumsy agenda. Houllebecq himself has said that the characters are not satirical (when to my American eyes, François is a satire of everything that is French, intellectual and male).The political and personal twists and turns in this book read like a National Front wet dream- everything he writes about is almost too easy. Yes, of course politicians are too passive or lazy to prevent an Islamic party coming to power, how convenient, like that would ever happen in France when Muslims are what everyone is afraid of. Make no mistake, Houllebecq is not some French Salman Rushdie here, the prose is just so awkward, overblown and…obvious. Like, we get it dude, Islam sucks and France is falling apart? Tell me more, Marine. I had no great intellectual takeaway from this book. It is almost like Houllebecq is trolling us all. Actually, I think trolling everyone was his endgame. He trolls the right with his dystopian visions of an Islamic future, and trolls the left by shitting on the French intelligentsia.
As an aside, I am so very tired of people’s first line of attack on anything “French” or “intellectual” being “you don’t understand the long French history of whatever/you don’t speak good enough French (see the Charlie Hebdo discussions, “You don’t understand the special brand of French satire if you don’t like Charlie Hebdo”). So yes, when I say I hated this book, I also say I get what our philosopher friend Houllebecq was trying to do, I completely understand the French (please, come at me broskis and tell me my French is not good enough), and I am saying it still sucked. Every move in this book felt so forced, so contrite, such obvious stretches (like, spoiler alert, our hero François considering a conversion to Islam at the end in total self-interest: because it will help him get a job at the Sorbonne and some nice polygamous tail now that the Saudis are running the show).
The bottom line: Should you read this book? Meh. It is like asking someone who only has one tooth a millimeter out of alignment if they should get braces. I guess so, but do you really want to? All those M&Ms messed up my diet.