Michel Houellebecq and the limitations of satire

Paul Constant

December 03, 2015

Michel Houellebecq is a terrible person. He is also, if his translators have done their job correctly, an excellent writer. This isn’t a rarity — plenty of writers are awful people. But unlike many of the worst people who write, Houellebecq doesn’t try to conceal his awfulness. Instead, he revels in it.

Houellebecq has made a career out of provocation. His essay praising H.P. Lovecraft’s ahuman tendencies is probably the best critical reappraisal of Lovecraft ever written. His novel Platform pushed sex tourism against terrorism to create a moral race to the bottom. The Possibility of an Island is a sci-fi exploration of cloning and technological advancements. Houellebecq writes with the detached, imaginative air of Haruki Murakami, but his interests are leering and poking at the most controversial concepts of our time.

Over time, Houellebecq’s slimy attentions have turned to radical Islam and terrorism, and his work has codified around it as a central theme. His latest novel, Submission, was published in his native France on the day of the Charlie Hebdo shooting. Submission is a 1984-like political satire of the future (much closer than Orwell’s novel, though: it’s set in 2022) and it’s a dystopian novel that predicts the Islamification of France.

When read after the coordinated terrorist attacks against Paris, Submission does not feel particularly prescient. The narrative involves a supposed moderate Muslim presidential candidate who becomes president of France and immediately institutes Sharia law:

They want every French child to have the option of a Muslim education, at every level of schooling. Now, however you look at it, a Muslim education is very different from a secular one. First off, no coeducation. And women would only be allowed to study certain things. What the Muslim Brotherhood really wants is for most women to study home ec, once they finish grade school, then get married as soon as possible with a small minority studying art or literature first. That’s their vision of an ideal society. Also, every teacher would have to be Muslim. No exceptions. Schools would observe Muslim dietary laws and the five daily prayers; above all else the curriculum itself would have to reflect the teachings of the Koran.

Obviously, Houellebecq is not aspiring for precision in his predictions. What he is doing is arguing against France’s acceptance of Muslim immigrants and what he believes to be a too-permissive culture of assimilation. He takes an indirect approach, telling the story from the perspective of an academic, an expert in the works of J.K. Huysmans. His protagonist is an ineffectual little man, an amoral solipsist who sleeps with students and freely admits that the “academic study of literature leads basically nowhere” and is “a rather farcical system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail more than 95 percent of the time.” He’s okay with this, as long as it pays his rent and keeps him in sexual relationships. In other words, like just about every Houellebecq protagonist, he’s a nihilist. And he can barely be bothered to notice the Islamic regime being installed all around him.

In fact, he openly admires some aspects of the new government:

Hidden all day in impenetrable black burkas, rich Saudi women transformed themselves by night into birds of paradise with their corsets, their see-through bras, their G-strings with multicolored lace and rhinestones. They were exactly the opposite of Western women, who spent their days dressed up and looking sexy to maintain their social status, then collapsed in exhaustion once they got home, abandoning all hope of seduction in favor of clothes that were loose and shapeless.

When he writes about radical Islam, you get the sense that Houellebecq is disgusted because he recognizes himself in it. He doesn’t really beleve that women are people, or at least that they’re worthy of the same rights that men enjoy. He hates the permissiveness and inclusion of liberal culture. You start to wonder if his loathing of ISIS and their ilk comes down to a quibble over tactics.

Something has changed over Houellebecq’s last few works, a calcification of ideals. Whereas his early works of provocation enjoyed a playful air of apathy, his new work bubbles over with hatred. Even the broadest variety of satire demands subtlety and nuance to work properly; Houellebecq’s dehumanization of French Muslims, his willingness to portray them as soulless invaders out of a 1950s sci-fi novel even as he mocks liberal attempts at empathy and understanding, sinks Submission to the level of a clueless rant.

This is something that has happened in America: after 9/11, some of our funniest satirists, including cartoonist Frank Miller and stand-up comedian Dennis Miller, tipped over the edge from clever and edgy into hateful and nonsensical. Houellebecq is smarter than either of the Millers, but recent events in France will likely strip him of even more of his subtlety, With Submission, he blithely claims that the more than 1.5 billion Muslims on earth are enemies of the West. It's hard to imagine how much lower he can sink.

It’s hard to imagine Orwell reading Submission and responding with anything less than pure disgust. Houellebecq has forgotten than good satire is a moral endeavor. With Submission, he’s drifted so far off course that he’s completely lost his way. Satire can spring from a wide variety of sources: outrage, hope, anger, playfulness. But the minute satire launches from hate, it stops being satire. It is instead a piece of propaganda from a lonely war.

Books in this review:
  • Submission
    by Michel Houellebecq
    Translated by Lorin Stein
    Farrar Straus Giroux
    October 20, 2015
    256 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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