HOUELLEBECQ PUTS ME in mind of my man Wyndham Lewis--brilliant and distinctive stylist, original mind, and classified as a conservative mainly by virtue of our creaky, over-determined left-right political binary. Lewis was not so much a true conservative as he was an unusually skillful satirist of complacent leftist pieties, and Houellebecq too seems keener to puncture the balloons of the enlightened than he is to defend the west, virtue, faith, etc.
Soumission (English title Submission, which is also what "Islam" translates as) imagines that, thanks to a particularly tricky (though not very likely) French electoral logjam, an Islamic party becomes part of a ruling coalition in France. Muslim mores (about polygamy, education, female dress, etc.) are adopted into law.
Sounds dystopian, right? In fact, sounds a lot like Jean Raspail's Le Camp des Saints, which caused a ruckus back when I was in graduate school with its immigration-as-zombie-movie plot line. Houellebecq's novel, though, seems almost to suggest that the Islamization of the West might be, from a conservative standpoint, just what we need.
The narrator is a mediocre university lecturer, a Huysmans scholar who has an affair with a different student every year. He makes a reasonably good exemplar of the complete moral and spiritual vacuity of the western intelligentsia. He is initially shocked and horrified by the Muslim takeover. He even goes on a retreat at the same monastery where Huysmans became an oblate after his famous conversion to Catholicism, as though in some effort to reclaim core western values.
Thing is--he's just not that into it. His main emotion at that monastery is frustration at there being a smoke detector in his room, preventing his having a cigarette when he wants one.
Then it turns out there may be certain advantages to, so to speak, going with the flow. If he converts, he can reclaim his old position at the university, on improved terms, since the new administration understands the public relations value of having members of the old faculty embrace the new order. And besides, as the new director points out, wouldn't one say that Christianity is a bit... depleted? Out of fuel? Pithless? If conservatives want the social stability of firm morality, no-nonsense patriarchy, clear-cut values, might it not be better to look to a younger, more vigorous faith tradition, without all that weird trinitarian mumbo-jumbo?
So, our man converts. And immediately starts wondering who the university will provide for his wives... matchmaking being part of the new faculty contract. His former female colleagues, presumably, will not be getting such offers.
First, the novel flicks boogers at the left by insisting that Muslims in Europe really do want to impose sharia law and the rest of it on the whole world. Then it flicks boogers at the right by insisting that sharia law and the rest of it are exactly equivalent to what you wish to impose on society. Lewis would be tickled.
The novel is too French to get much of an audience here, I suspect, but I thought it was a brilliant performance.