Well, I have finished reading Michel Houellebecq's Submission, a novel that is, I think, finally defeated by the very cynicism and pessimism that propel it so effectively and enjoyably through its early and middle stages. The theme is, as all the world knows (this book had a sensational birth, published on the very day of the Charlie Hebdo attack), the Islamisation of France. This comes about following a general election in 2022, won by a charismatic, cosmopolitan, eminently electable Muslim (with no Islamist or antisemitic baggage) at the head of an alliance including the Socialists and the rump of the old Republican right. This alliance, represented as the only hope of securing the survival of the Republic (and of the EU) in the face of the threat from first-round winners the National Front, wins a landslide victory - and, in these particular circumstances, with this particular leader, that seems an all too believable outcome.
However, Submission is not a political novel in anything like a standard sense; it is a Houellebecq novel, in which the politics takes place off-stage while the narrator - the familiar authorial stand-in, solitary, decrepit, sex-mad, cynical, terminally disenchanted, addicted to booze and cigarettes (and, this time, something of a gourmand) - pursues his preoccupations, casually thinking the unthinkable as he goes along, and saying the unsayable with unblinking frankness. Which is very bracing, quite unlike any other living writer I can think of, and often startlingly funny - Houellebecq is nothing if not a satirist, and he cuts through our delusions about ourselves and our society like a knife through the softest butter.
The narrator, François, is an academic with a decent university teaching post, a respected expert on J.K. Huysmans (best known to English readers as the author of A Rebours - Against the Grain, Against Nature), a writer with whom he is still obsessed, this fixation providing one of the strands of the novel. François's personal life is, needless to say, a shambles: the nearest thing he has to a genuine relationship with a woman - or anyone - is about to collapse, largely from his inanition, and he is soon availing himself of other sexual possibilities in an effort to revive his flagging libido. No one can make sex quite so profoundly unappetising as Houellebecq...
Meanwhile, François keeps finding himself thrown into contact with various mysterious figures - all men, of course (Houellebecq can't really write women, one of his major weaknesses) - who have the inside story of what is going on in France and beyond, and who are happy to spell it out. A remarkably large part of Submission is in the form of exposition by these enigmatic insiders, either in direct conversation or through their writings. They present a chilling picture of western civilisation in suicide mode, willingly being destroyed by the very freedoms it cherishes, succumbing to its own internal contradictions and to the brute facts of demographics: once a population ceases to replace itself it will inevitably be swallowed up by a more vigorous one - and in a democracy that means the end of the old order. Islam, by all these accounts, will inevitably take over, in France and in much of western Europe.
And so it comes to pass in France in 2022 - and the remarkable thing is (in Houellebecq's version of events) how little difference it makes, and how easy the members of the various power elites find it to accommodate to the new realities, make the necessary adjustments, go through the required formalities. This is all too plausible, but Houellebecq doesn't have anything like the kind of panoptic imagination to grasp the wider impact of Islamisation, especially on its principal victims - women, who are largely to be removed from the workplace and set to work raising families in polygamous marriages. This is merely stated as so much information, and doesn't unduly bother our narrator - well it wouldn't, would it? He, for his part, finds that the new order presents him with the opportunity to revive not only his stalled career but his flagging sex life. He even, after a half-hearted flirtation with Huysmans' Catholic spirituality, proves strangely unresistant to the fundamentals of Islam - especially the pleasing prospect of polygamy and sex with submissive underage girls. What's a clapped-out, sex-crazed old cynic to do?
This is all very well, and quite in keeping with what we know of our deplorable narrator, but it does mean that the novel peters out, rather than reaching a satisfactory conclusion. Cynicism, that universal solvent, finally dissolves even itself. The latter stages of Submission are thin and lifeless compared to what came before. As a novel it must, I suppose, be counted a failure, but as an examination of what his happening in Europe now, as a ventilation of issues that are barely regarded as legitimate but may well prove crucial, it is a typically brave and fiercely stimulating piece of work. Prophetic too? Well, all prophecy is ultimately a matter of taking a hard, clear-eyed look at the present, and that Houellebecq - untainted by the slightest whiff of political (or emotional) correctness - does like no one else currently writing fiction. Events since the publication of Submission - events in Germany and Belgium as well as France - certainly suggest that he wasn't barking up entirely the wrong tree. For just one example, the German media's failure to report the events in Cologne on New Year's Eve until the story began to come out via social networks - this is exactly the scenario Houellebecq presents in Submission, where a kind of sporadic low-level civil war is being fought in France, quite unreported by the official media. Happy new year!