Thursday, January 22, 2015

Book review by Adam Gopnik: Michel Houellebecq’s Francophobic satire “Submission”

In the novel that made Houellebecq famous, “Les Particules Élémentaires” (1998), he proposed that a society with an unchecked devotion to economic liberalism and erotic libertinism would come to a daylong oscillation between fucking and finance, where bankers would literally break their backs in the act of having sex for the hundredth time that day. The satire seemed ridiculously heavy-handed and overwrought—and then came Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund...

French writer Michel Houellebecq has become a literary “case” to be reprimanded as much as an author to be read, and his new novel, “Soumission,” or “Submission,” shows why. The book, which will be published in English by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is shaped by a simple idea. In France in the very near future, the respectable republican parties fragment the vote in a multiparty election, and the two top vote-getters are Marine Le Pen, of the extreme right, and one Mohammed Ben Abbes, the fictive leader of a French Muslim Brotherhood. In the runoff, the French left backs the Muslim, preferring the devil it doesn’t know to the one it does. Ben Abbes’s government soon imposes a kind of relaxed Sharia law throughout France and—this is the book’s central joke and point—the French élite are cravenly eager to collaborate with the new regime, delighted not only to convert but to submit to a bracing and self-assured authoritarianism. Like the oversophisticated Hellenists in Cavafy’s poem, they have been secretly waiting for the barbarians all their lives.

Houellebecq is one of those writers who cause critics to panic, since placing him is tricky. He is probably the most famous French novelist of his generation. An immediately recognizable caricature of Houellebecq as a wannabe Nostradamus was the image on the last issue of Charlie Hebdo before the attack on its staff. But he is not a particularly graceful stylist, and it exasperates French writers who are to see him made so much of outside France, not to mention within it. Though he began as a poet, he doesn’t have much poetic grip, nor are his choices and phrases of a kind that make other writers envious. (One well-known French critic has pointed out, tartly, that no good writer would ever confuse, as Houellebecq does in the new novel, the French word for “vineyard” with the French word for “vintage.”) Yet it is a mistake to think of him as a provocateur, in the manner of authors who purposefully set out to goad and annoy as many people as they can with each new book, like Gore Vidal, or, for that matter, Céline.

Houellebecq is, simply, a satirist. He likes to take what’s happening now and imagine what would happen if it kept on happening. That’s what satirists do. Jonathan Swift saw that the English were treating the Irish as animals; what if they took the next natural step and ate their babies? Orwell, with less humor, imagined what would happen if life in Britain remained, for forty years, at the depressed level of the BBC cafeteria as it was in 1948, and added some Stalinist accessories. Huxley, in “Brave New World,” took the logic of a hedonistic and scientific society to its farthest outcome, a place where pleasure would be all and passion unknown. This kind of satire impresses us most when the imaginative extrapolation intersects an unexpected example—when it suddenly comes close enough to fit. (As when Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared as living proof of Philip K. Dick’s prescience about the merger of American politics and the wilder shores of its entertainments, achieved by people with funny names.).. read more: