By Michel Houellebecq; Translated from the French by Lorin Stein; 246 pages; Farrar; Straus & Giroux. $25.

The Veil

For François the end of western civilization begins quietly. As he approaches a classroom at the Sorbonne where he teaches French literature, three guys in their twenties are blocking the door. There’s nothing menacing about them, and when he asks them to move, they do so graciously, telling him that they’re visiting their “sisters,” two young North African women dressed in black burkas seated inside. Unsettled by the encounter nevertheless because he’s heard rumors about professors being attacked in other cities, Françoise considers the fact that the Jewish Students Union no longer has representatives on any Paris campus, while the youth division of a new Islamist national party called the Muslim Brotherhood has opened branches across the city.

Although he describes himself “as political as a bath towel” Françoise is aware of undercurrents hinting that France may be morphing from a republic governed since 1958 by either socialists or conservatives into something new, something that might include rule by the extreme right and maybe even Muslims, who comprise some 10 percent of France’s population.

It’s the year 2022.

At a festive university garden party the mood suddenly shifts when Françoise and the other guests hear in the distance the unmistakable crackle of gunfire and explosions. Then comes a new round of gunfire, this time closer, and a much louder explosion. As a column of smoke rises above nearby buildings the party breaks up. In the street François passes by two riot police in Kevlar, chatting calmly as if nothing were happening. Strangely, there’s no mention of the disturbance on the news. But an ominous video on YouTube shows fifteen hooded men dressed in black, armed with machine guns, marching through the Muslim enclave of Argenteuil, a Paris suburb.

When the results from the first round of voting is counted the far right has won and the Muslim Brotherhood has come in second. In the final round it’s believed that the socialists and the conservatives will form a coalition and back the Muslim Brotherhood, reasoning that anything, even sharia law, is better than fascism.

Soon after the election Françoise shows up at the Sorbonne to find that the gates are locked. A guard informs him that the university is closed until further notice. He flees Paris and heads in his car along strangely deserted highways toward Spain. “I had no plan,” François tells us in one of the many wry moments in the book, “no exact destination, just a very vague sense that I ought to head southwest—that that if a civil war should break out in France, it would take a while to reach the southwest. I knew next to nothing about the southwest, really, only that it was a region where they ate duck confit, and duck confit struck me as incompatible with civil war.” Along the way he tries to get some news of the world on his radio but all the stations are full of static. Everything in France seems to be broken. When he pulls off the highway to buy gas and food he finds people shot down, a cashier here, two young North Africans there.

Finally, he reaches the ancient town of Martel, and decides to spend the night. In his hotel the Wi-Fi isn’t working, and the television channels are meaningless swarms of pixels. Martel, he remembers, was named for Charles “The Hammer” Martel,” who halted the Muslim invasion of France in the 8th Century at the Battle of Tours. While he’s there the final round of voting is sabotaged when armed thugs attack twenty polling stations and steal the ballot boxers. The election is rescheduled and, indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood wins.

France veers away from civil war, and François returns to Paris. The post-election changes are subtle, but obvious. French women are no longer wearing skirts or dresses, only pants with loose, thigh-length tops. The secular schools have become Muslim, and the sexes are segregated. Above the doors at the Sorbonne are fastened the gilded star and crescent of Islam, and the offices are decorated with posters bearing hand-lettered verses from the Koran. Saudi Arabia has bought the Sorbonne, having been outbid for Oxford by the Qutaris. Françoise is fired. In some ways this is a relief, especially since he’ll be collecting his full pension. “I didn’t like young people and never had” he tells us, “even when I might have been numbered among them. Being young implied, it seemed to me, a certain enthusiasm for life."

He is now totally alone. His sometime girlfriend moves with her parents to Israel. His parents, from whom he’s estranged, die. His only friend is the obscure, long-dead novelist J. K. Huysmans, whose 19th Century novels were the basis of Fransoise’s doctoral thesis. "You have to take an interest in something in life,” he tells himself. “I wondered what could interest me, now that I was finished with love. I could take a course in wine tasting, maybe, or start collecting model airplanes." Instead, he turns to prostitutes and alcohol. His diet, here in the birthplace of one of the world’s great cuisines, consists of takeout and microwave. Then he makes an attempt to follow in the footsteps of his beloved Huysmans by staying at the Benedictine abbey where the novelist stayed after rejecting pessimism and converting to Catholicism. But the experience not only leaves him cold, and contemptuous of Huysmans’ pathetic attempt to lend meaning to the meaningless, he realizes that his long love affair with these novels is finished. And that his intellectual life is at an end.

Like Philipp Roth’s The Plot Against America and Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, Submission is a political novel that imagines the unlikely. While the American novels posit that the racist, reactionary, and xenophobic tendencies in American society finally lead to a fascist takeover of the Federal government, Houllebecq’s ripping satire paints France as a spiritually bankrupt culture in which Islam—in reality now the second most practiced faith in the country—rushes in to fill the void.

Like a recovering addict who uses Jesus to replace the drug, Françoise at the end of the book disavows both consumerism and the life of the mind and converts to Islam. But his conversion is hypocritical and a scathing condemnation of France’s liberal and materialistic intellectual elite—what he really wants is his teaching job back and all of the bourgeois pleasures that go with it. Huysmans has gotten him nowhere spiritually, and he’s uncertain what Islam can do for his soul, but at least there will be those four wives its polygynous culture allows.

You could read Submission as a cautionary tale about the seductive power of Islam—the fastest growing religion on the planet, and one whose politics downplay economics, instead stressing religious over secular education and the encouragement of large families in order to outbreed the infidels. (In reality, “nativist” America’s nightmare will come true by the end of the century: The largest religion in the world will not be Christianity, and the language spoken by more tongues than any other will be French, not English.) But what Houllebecq is actually fixed on here are the consequences of The Shrug—the pit of ennui, indifference and lack of emotional attachment much of the industrialized world’s people have fallen into as they strive for ever more material things.

(By Bill Vaughn, 29 February 2016)