It could be because I have read the work of too many self-absorbed novelists who favor such sentences as these: "The next day I got up early and shut myself in the bathroom. I took a long shower. I dried my hair carefully, worrying that the hotel hair dryer, which blew violently, would give it the wrong wave." If this is the sort of thing you hate, read on for a recommended alternative.
Michel Houellebecq's new novel Submission, translated from the French by Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, and officially published this week by Farrar Straus and Giroux, comes as refreshment because it is about the great world outside and beyond the self -- the world of history in the making, as Hobbes might depict it if he were around. It is a world of wars and surrogates or warnings of war: threats, pronouncements, failed diplomacy, mob behavior, and murderous violence of an infinitely greater magnitude than that of a hotel hair dryer.
A moment ago I said that Submission came as refreshment to one who is tired of memoirs by individuals who have never done anything memorable. But while refreshing in this sense, the new novel is terrifying. It is a vision of the future that defies the policemen of political correctness. It dares to spin out a plausible scenario extrapolated from the acts and proclamations of ISIS, Al Queda, the Ayatollah, and terrorist entities whether organized or consisting of indoctrinated loners.
Some novels are like the needless elaboration of a Facebook entry. Not Houellebecq's. Submission is a work of invention and speculation. What happens if, in the next decade, the political alignments in France evolve to the point that the nominee of a Muslim political party wins the presidency? Is "Eurabia" the future of Europe? The vision of "submission" that is central to Islam informs this first-person narrative in which, inevitably, a proud people submits to fanatic religious dogma, women submit to men, and "submission" represents an impulse and a drive that would have merited Freud's attention. It is a fact sometimes neglected by commentators that Sharia represents a triumphant form of patriarchy -- a fact Houellebecq goes to town with.
Francois, the narrator, is a tenured professor, a scholar whose lifework centers upon J. K. Huymans, the late nineteenth-century author of A Rebours, a book that has been aptly called the "breviary of the Decadence." The conduct of university administrators, professors, and intellectuals is expertly skewered by the skeptical, world-weary Francois: "Over the course of the twentieth century, plenty of intellectuals had supported Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot and had never been taken to task. For the French, an intellectual didn't have to be responsible. That wasn't his job."
The prose, always good enough to sustain the reader's attention, sometimes rises to eloquence: "We feel nostalgia for a place simply because we've lived there; whether we live well or badly scarcely matters. The past is always beautiful. So, for that matter, is the future. Only the present hurts, and we carry it around like an abscess of suffering, our companion between two infinities of happiness and peace."
Effortlessly provocative, informed as much by resignation as by ire, Submission may just be the most important novel published in the United States this year.. -- David Lehman