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Submission: A Novel
Submission: A Novel
Michel Houellebecq
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
256 pp., 39.53

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Alan Jacobs

The Power of Submission

A near-future France ruled by Islam.

A story any earnest evangelical Christian would love to write—to film, maybe: an extremely successful academic teaching at an élite institution in Europe (in Paris, no less! the Sorbonne!) who also happens to be sexually skilled—able to bring his lovely ex-girlfriend, who it seems still desires him and would stay with him if he wanted, to orgasm—nevertheless finds his successful life increasingly empty and meaningless. But as it turns out, the 19th-century author he specializes in and has a unique attachment to, a writer known as one of the foremost of "the decadents," J.-K. Huysmans, had relatively late in a life a surprising conversion to Christianity—an event our protagonist, François, cannot forget, not least because when we meet him he is precisely the age at which Huysmans converted. He makes a kind of pilgrimage to the monastery where Huysmans had confirmed his own commitment to Catholicism. And indeed, soon after this visit François undergoes a religious conversion of his own.

Yet what I have described is not the plot of an evangelical film—an R- or perhaps X-rated follow-up to God's Not Dead—but that of Submission, the most recent book of the controversial and scandalous French novelist Michel Houellebecq.

Now, my précis of the book's plot is quite accurate as far as it goes, but I may have omitted a few elements of the story. So let me try again.

Submission imagines circumstances in which, in the near future, France could become a nation ruled by Islam: a place where women do not appear in public unless shrouded; where polygamy is not only legal but widely practiced by men of the social élite (including professors in the best universities); where those universities teach only subjects, and approaches to those subjects, that are by obscure authorities deemed consistent with Islamic law; and where these social transformations and many others are funded by Middle Eastern petrodollars. ...

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