Contact Ted Gioia at
tedgioia@hotmail.com

Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter:
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Visit his web site at
www.tedgioia.com

Great Books Guide is an
Amazon.com associate


Disclosure:  This web site and
its sister sites may receive
promotional copies of review
items and other materials from
publisher, publicists and other
parties.
Recommended Links:

Great Books Guide
Conceptual Fiction
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's personal web site

Los Angeles Review of Books
American Fiction Notes
The Big Read
Critical Mass
The Elegant Variation
The Daily Beast
Dana Gioia
The Millions
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
Great Books Guide
Home Page
The 100 Best Novels
The Alt Reality Nobel Prize
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter:
www.twitter.com/tedgioia
Selected Reviews
(2007-2014)
BY TED GIOIA

Michel Houellebecq [click here]
Jonathan Franzen [
click here]
Emily St. John Mandel [click here]
Daniel Kehlmann [
click here]
David Mitchell [
click here]
Richard Powers [
click here]
Donna Tartt [
click here]
Eleanor Catton [
click here]
Marisha Pessl [
click here]
Michael Chabon [
click here]
Zadie Smith [
click here]
Martin Amis [
click here]
Karen Walker [
click here]
Kurt Vonnegut [
click here]
Hari Kunzru [
click here]
Chad Harbach [
click here]
Chuck Palahniuk [
click here]
Ernest Cline [
click here]
Mark Haddon [
click here]
Bonnie Jo Campbell [
click here]
China Miéville [
click here]
V.S. Naipaul [
click here]
David Foster Wallace [
click here]
T.C. Boyle [
click here]
Colm Tóibín [
click here]
Bruce Machart [
click here]
Jonathan Franzen [
click here]
Per Petterson [
click here]
David Mitchell [
click here]
Joseph Epstein [
click here]
Frederick Turner [
click here]
Tom Rachman [
click here]
Martin Amis [
click here]
Ian McEwan [
click here]
Robert Stone [
click here]
Don DeLillo [
click here]
Joshua Ferris [
click here]
Paul Auster [
click here]
Philip Roth [
click here]
Jonathan Lethem [
click here]
Richard Powers [
click here]
Jedediah Berry [
click here]
Richard Russo [
click here]
Thomas Pynchon [
click here]
Reif Larsen [
click here]
Arthur Phillips [
click here]
Colm Tóibín [
click here]
Jayne Anne Phillips [
click here]
Geoff Dyer [
click here]
T.C. Boyle [
click here]
Jonathan Littell [
click here]
Daniel Suarez [
click here]
Jim Harrison [
click here]
José Saramago [
click here]
Toni Morrison [
click here]
Roberto Bolaño [
click here]
Elizabeth Strout [
click here]
Chuck Klosterman [
click here]
Paul Auster [
click here]
Philip Roth [
click here]
Julian Barnes [
click here]
Marilynne Robinson
[click here]
Tim Winton [
click here]
Jonathan Miles [
click here]
Jhumpa Lahiri [
click here]
Joseph O'Neill [
click here]
Richard Price [
click here]
Tobias Wolff [
click here]
Donald Ray Pollock
[click here]
Charles Bock [
click here]
Geraldine Brooks [
click here]
Alan Bennett [
click here]
Mario Vargas Llosa [
click here]
Denis Johnson [
click here]
Philip Roth [
click here]
Ann Patchett [
click here]
Junot Diaz [
click here]
Matt Ruff [
click here]
Ryszard Kapuściński [
click here]
Roberto Bolaño [
click here]
Jack Kerouac [
click here]
John Leland [
click here]
Ian McEwan [
click here]
Khaled Hosseini [
click here]
Don DeLillo [
click here]
Michael Chabon [
click here]
Haruki Murakami [click here]
Jonathan Lethem [
click here]
Michael Ondaatje [
click here]
Steven Hall [
click here]
Visit our sister sites:

Fractious Fiction
Radical, unconventional or experimental
works of fiction

The New Canon
The best works of fiction published
since 1985

Conceptual Fiction
The best of fantasy, science fiction,
magical realism and alternative reality

Postmodern Mystery
Experimental, unconventional and
postmodern approaches to stories of
mystery and suspense
Submission

by Michel Houellebecq

Reviewed by Ted Gioia
If you want a prediction for this afternoon, check out your daily horoscope.
But if you need a forecast for thousands of years from now, you have no
place to turn except  science fiction.
Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy
and Frank Herbert’s Dune take us more than 20,000 years into the future.
H.G. Wells advances 800,000 years ahead for
The Time Machine. And
Olaf Stapledon, the king of future-tripping, will peer ahead a sweet five
trillion years, and give you a first-hand account of the death of our sun.

But what if you need a mid-range forecast? Let’s
say you want to look just seven years into the future,
who you gonna call? Michel Houellebecq, winner
of the Prix Goncourt, comes to your rescue. In his
novel
Submission, published in 2015 amidst
controversy and bloodshed—the book came out
the day of the
Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack, and
Houellebecq was featured on its cover—he
anticipates the cultural landscape in France and
its neighbors in the year 2022.

You’re disappointed, I know. Not much can change
in seven years, huh? Even fashions don’t change
so fast, let alone institutions and social mores.
Guess again!  See all those women in Paris with their facial features
hidden from view? Have you noticed those miniskirts on the Champs-
Élysées? Or, rather, have you noticed out the complete disappearance of
miniskirts. Welcome to the new France, which is very different from the old
France.

Has a Taliban-like dictatorship taken over France? No, not at all. In
Houellebecq’s novel, a democratically-elected government has embraced
Islamic principles, and is now seeking to bring them to Europe at large.
That may seem a stretch, but in the world of
Submission, a whole host of
new countries are likely to enter the European Union—Turkey, Algeria,
Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, and perhaps even Egypt. Under the
leadership of its new president, the genial and inspiring Muhammed Ben
Abbes, France aims to take the lead in creating a unified Europe with a
scope even the Roman emperors never envisioned.

This turn-of-events could hardly have happened without a political
splintering resulting in a run-off French presidential election between the
far-right National Front and the theocratic Muslim Brotherhood. The two
parties that have long dominated French political life, with the center-right
and socialists trading off control of the government, now face
marginalization, and their supporters up for grabs. Ben Abbes, in a brilliant
display of political maneuvering, convinces many of them that his
leadership is less dangerous than handing the reins of power to the
National Front.

Could this really happen in 2022? Don’t place any wagers on it, despite
Houellebecq’s vividly-imagined prognostications. He is a satirist, not a
futurist. He willingly embraces the paradoxical and the absurd, and
sacrifices plausibility if it allows him to highlight some garish or grotesque
clash of values.

But he is a first-rate satirist. Houellebecq capture just the right tone as he
describes the reactions of career academics to the in-the-streets
deconstruction, unlike any they’ve read about in Derrida, when thugs of
different political persuasions engage in hand-to-hand combat. “I love
France,” declares one in a near panic, “I love…I don’t know…I love the
cheese.” When someone gives a book about converting to Islam to our
narrator François, a literary scholar specializing in the work of Joris-Karl
Huysmans—a writer who made a similar shift from bohemianism to
religious devoted at the end of the nineteenth century—our protagonist
skips over the chapters on moral teachings, and immediately checks out
the section on polygamy.

François has noticed that some of his elite male colleagues, new
adherents to the ascendant creed, have been rewarded with multiple
spouses—a nubile lass to adorn the bedchamber, a culinary expert to take
charge of the kitchen, perhaps a third to handle the other responsibilities
of household management.  The person who is recruiting  François to join
the faculty of the newly-purified Sorbonne explains: “There is nothing
unnatural about classifying academics among the dominant males….In
your case, I think you could have three wives without much trouble—not
that anyone would force you to, of course.” Courtship is simplified under
the new regime: matchmakers are available to “conduct a sort of
evaluation, and correlate the girls’ physical appearance with the social
status of their future husbands.”

As even this short summary indicates, Houellebecq deliberately seeks to
provoke and outrage. Even the most ordinary circumstances are
described in flamboyant terms. Women see conversations between men,
in his words, as an “oddity, not quite buggery, or duel, but something in-
between.” The academic study of literature, he explains, “a rather farcical
system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail more
than 95 percent of the time.” Our author finds many targets for his satire,
and spares none of them.

Go ahead and be shocked; maybe even denounce the author. This is
precisely the effect Houellebecq seeks, and which turned his novel into a
runaway bestseller. A more measured response might be to evaluate the
likelihood of the circumstances outlined in this firebrand of a book. Will his
predictions come true in 2022…or even in 2032 or 2052? Will immigrants
actually transform France or—just possibly—will France transform its
immigrants?

No, I don’t look to Houellebecq for intimations of the future. On the other
hand, much of what he satirizes is all too plausible. In fact, much of it is
familiar to us already, and not just in France. We already see widespread
complacency, especially among the ‘intellectual class’ to institutionalized
violations of civil liberties and human rights on the grandest scale, even in
the most advanced Western democracies. We already see journalists and
news organizations determining what gets ‘covered’ in the press on the
basis of ideology, scurrying to bury stories that don’t jive with their pre-
defined biases. We find bizarre discrepancies in the manipulated public
reaction to events—a Kafkaesque situation in which a dentist shooting a
lion on a hunting expedition is a lightning rod for over-the-top outrage,
while CIA torture, mass surveillance and drone executions of innocent
people are accepted as daily events.  We see how patriarchy and
repression on the largest scale are tolerated when practiced by entire
nations and cultures, but denounced if they appear in a novel written
centuries ago. As the saying goes, you can’t make this stuff up—and,
indeed, you don’t need to. Just read a daily summary of the news.

Houellebecq is empowered by the bêtise of his contemporaries. Their folly
is his path to fame. In that way, he isn’t much different than the political
players in his novel, who are able to secure a dominant position because
everyone else is so confused and paralyzed. Or, on many of the pages of
Submission, they are so focused on the subtleties of the palette, savoring
the food and wine offerings of French civilization—now supplemented by a
growing number of North African and Middle Eastern options—that they
forget the other planks that support a society over the long haul. You can’t
build democracy on good cheese and fine wine. And in a conflict between
cultural values, the most complacent side gives way, no matter how rich its
historic legacy.

This should be the real takeaway of Submission. When a book spurs
hatred or violence or widens the divide between cultures, count me out.
But if a novel highlights the blind spots that incite this violence, and
reminds us of the ways prudent people bridge the gap dividing ideologies
without sacrificing the core values of their own, it can have a positive
impact. Perhaps Submission will prove to be a book of this second type,
reducing the polarization of our current sociopolitical environment through
the time-honored ways of pluralism and tolerance that thriving nations
(France not the least of them) have exemplified. If that happens, it may find
its success as novel comes at the price of its failure as a prognostication.



Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His
latest book,
Love Songs: The Hidden History, is published by Oxford
University Press.