What the Hell is Wrong With This Book: Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission

Jeanne Kay read through 300 pages of racist tropes, derriere obsession, and dodgy geopolitics so that you wouldn't have to.

March 16. 2015

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What the Hell is Wrong With This Book: Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission

Jeanne Kay read through 300 pages of racist tropes, derriere obsession, and dodgy geopolitics so that you wouldn't have to.

Reading a blurb on Soumission seemed enough: “What if, in the 2022 presidential election, France elected the leader of the Muslim Fraternity and turned the republic into an Islamic state…?” Any french novel published in 2015 which tackles the possibility of a ‘great Muslim takeover’ should send shivers down the spine of anyone in possession of the most basic knowledge of the nation’s current reactionary revival and climate of Islamophobia. And the fact that this ‘science-fiction’ ‘satire’ was carried out by Michel Houellebecq did not make it any better. Houellebecq’s views on Islam, “the dumbest religion” according to a 2001 interview of his, are well-known, his luncheons as a guest of the Sarkozys are no secret, and his gender politics tend to make Philip Roth look like a Riot Grrrl.

So it seemed rather safe to brush off Soumission as Absolutely Terrible without subjecting oneself to its reading. It was only after one of my favourite contemporary authors, Emmanuel Carrere, hailed the book as masterful in a Le Monde op/ed and until many, many French critics not only praised the book but claimed that “only those who haven’t actually read it can claim it is Islamophobic” that my curiosity/postcolonial pride was piqued, and I decided to take one for the team and actually read every single page of what has been called “the 1984 of our Times.”

I started with an open mind. I thought I might find out that it was all a big critique of Islamophobia in France, an anti-racist pamphlet. Plus, Emmanuel Carrere loved it, and I don’t like being at odds with authors I admire, so liking it would have solved my cognitive dissonance. I say this to not be accused not to have given it a chance. It soon became obvious, however, that not only was my cognitive dissonance issue not going to be solved, but that was going to become the least of my concerns. One of which would be the potential need for a bucket. I had never experienced physical nausea while reading a novel before (the Myxomatosis episode in Trainspotting came close, but for other reasons), but it wasn’t long until I felt like the act of reading this book was akin to reading Louis-Ferdinand Celine circa 1937: it was a really disgusting thing to do.

Now before I get into the analysis of What the Hell is Wrong with This Book, I feel the urgent need to summarize the plot in purely descriptive terms, just so that you get a picture of the latest story out of the mind of “France’s Greatest Novelist”- and let that picture speak for itself:

Like most of Houellebecq’s main characters and just like Houellebecq himself, François is a middle-aged, straight, white, atheist French man. He teaches literature at the Sorbonne and remains a bachelor. He does have a girlfriend, though, a hot student named Myriam with a cracking ass who absolutely loves giving him blowjobs. Who is she? What’s she like? What does she think about in between fellatios? Who cares! Not the narrator, anyway, and not us, certainly. François’s life is pretty boring. Granted, sometimes he finds “three guys in their twenties: two Arabs and one Black standing in front of [his] classroom door, blocking the entry” (p.33) which makes for a bit of an adrenaline rush, but luckily tend to be “unarmed” and appear “calm enough” so he manages to ask them to move over. (Phew! Close one!) And, it’s true, some of his students are (p.35) “burqa-wearing virgins” (DOUBLE crime!) and he can’t figure out why they’d want to study the salacious aspects of French literature, so he’s puzzled. But apart from these unfortunate incidents, things are pretty good, and quiet. Until the presidential election comes around and the two parties emerging from the first round are Marine Le Pen’s Front National and… Mohammed Ben Abbes’ Muslim Fraternity. Shock! Awe! Indignation! François gets a bit nervous and after being witness to urban brawls between ‘young arabs’ and ‘identitaires’ (aka nazis) indicative, he believes, of an impending civil war, and listening to a colleague’s husband, who happens to be a secret service agent, tell him that Ben Abbes will surely win, he packs up, jumps into his car and drives off. Where to? Where does one escape the impending Fall of French Civilization? The French South-West, of course! Home of saucisson and little quaint churches! And more specifically, the town of Martel (if the reader has not made the connection to Charles Martel 732 victory against the Arab Invader, it is pointed out later on by the gracious narrator). There he grieves for Myriam’s departure (she was Jewish so she went to Israel: too risky around these parts!), imbimbes in the beauty of the countryside, and sits down for a beer at the local bar… when, suddenly, who does he meet? You will never guess: The Secret Service Agent, the very one who convinced him to leave Paris! He just so happens to have a family home in Martel! Taking advantage of this felicitious coincidence, he invites François for a nice, hearty traditional french meal that his wife prepared back home, so that he can explain to him the political implications of the new regime (Ben Abbes’ ultimate goal is the creation an all-Muslim Europe, based on the model of Augustus’ Roman Empire) while Marie-Francoise serves them a bit more lamb roast (she might be a university professor, but she’s still a woman!)

Now here you might want to stop and ask: “Wait.. is this real? Is Michel Houellebecq taking the piss? Is this a monumental joke?!” And yes, I think this is the point where any smart reader stops considering the book as a Novel (with all its semiotic implications) and starts seeing it as a Farce. Which is what some benevolent reviewers have argued: that Houellebecq is a satirist, that people underestimate his humour, that he excels in caricature… But –and this was also a question which became crucial in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings– we must ask our caricaturists what it is that they are truly aiming to reveal in their jest: are they exposing the established&powerful to some well-deserved mockery or are they taking advantage of a cultural climate of intolerance to exploit people’s prejudices?

In the case of Houellebecq, he himself has argued- validated by some of his reviewers- that it is not in fact islam which is under attack in his book – nor even the ‘Islamization’ of French culture. By positing a universe in which an Islamic government successfully fills up the existential hollowness of French society with religious principles, strategic misogyny and family economics and becomes embraced by social-democrats apparatchiks, what Houellebecq makes, it is argued, is a critique of the moral death and political bankruptcy of western civilization.

Two problems, however, remain with this generous interpretation. The first is that considering that 345 000 copies of Soumission were sold in France in the month following its publication, (add to this the 270 000 in Germany and the 200 000 in Italy) one can safely assume that the vast majority of his readers are not buying the book based on their distaste for the spinelessness of French elites, but rather, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings and subsequent Islamophobia free-for-all, because it has become a symbol of resistance against what is presented as the “internal Islamic menace.” I am not being condescending to an imaginary ‘dumb reader’ here, I’m talking about the Soumission review from the goddamn Guardian:

Is the birthplace of the Enlightenment foundering under a dangerous multiculturalism? Will the distrust that exists between the republican establishment and many Muslim citizens escalate into open conflict, one consequence being that the dribble of French Jews to Israel grows first into a stream, then a flood?

But more importantly, what makes Houellebecq’s Soumission unquestionably Islamophobic, unequivocally racist, unmistakably sexist, despite his own objections and beyond the near-universal claims to his supposed literary genius, is the utter absence of any interrogation of his own problematic assumptions, made obvious throughout by the novel’s discourse. The way he portrays women as a distinctly other species, a “slightly different type of humanity” (p.207), in existence only to be instrumental to men. The way his narrator mourns the covering breadths of female clothing after the regime change depriving men (and men only!) from the “minimal consolation” of ass-contemplation. The way every man of his knowledge seems to be jumping on the occasion of getting a nubile second wife when polygyny is made lawful, as if his own fantasies went without saying. The way Islam is compared to BDSM as a supposed expression of human nature’s inherent submissiveness. The way every time something serious/political is discussed, it is between white men, while women serve them food. The way he seems to be unable to refrain from grotesque racist stereotypes, like comparing President Ben Abbes to a “good old Tunisian grocer.” The way he seems to expect that the crassness of it all somehow makes it OK.

In Houellebecq’s world, Islam is never interrogated. It is a monolith that appears fully formed and immutable to the reader and french citizens alike, like the perfect embodiment of their prejudices and fears. When Ben Abbes gets in power, women leave the labour force; polygyny becomes commonplace; education becomes privatised and religious; Jews must flee to Israel; wealthy petro-monarchies of the gulf compete to control key French institutions. It’s as if all of the french Islamophobic fantasies are projected onto what Houellebecq merely calls “Islam” without a hint of either imagination or historical veracity. In fact, the whole book is a projection of Houellebecq’s own fantasies. And if the arch of the main character, François, is to follow in the footsteps of the object of his academic specialty Joris-Karl Huysmans, known for his abrupt conversion to Catholicism, if he finally jumps the Rubicon and converts to Islam in order to recover his job at the Sorbonne, it is not without having been convinced by the Dean that he could “probably get up to 3 wives, no problem.” (p.293)

Soumission has been hailed as a new 1984, a visionary novel, but it is in fact exactly the opposite: the agonising convulsion of the dying corpse of straight-white western patriarchy, its trembling rage at its gradual loss of absolute domination, its livid horror at seeing its empire escape. In the end it expresses not the truth about French society, not a reality about the supposed tragic decadence of western civilization, but instead its dominating class’s utter lack of imagination, the pitiful narrowness of its spirit, the absolute scantiness of its potential for thinking the world beyond the walls of its miserable, petty little borders.

March 16. 2015