Dystopian novels will always have a market for the simple reason that an appreciable number of people are routinely anticipating the end of something, either civilization or the world itself. And, anyhow, dystopias invariably prove attractive, maybe perversely, in satisfying our curiosity: just how strange or revolutionary will the future society be?
Nineteen Eighty-Four may have been Orwell’s glance into a future a mere thirty-five years from its publication, but had it been 350 years or 3,500, the general feel of the novel would have been the same. In Brave New World, Huxley settled for the twenty-sixth century (or seven centuries A.F., “After Ford”), a sure guarantee to pique curiosity.
Michel Houellbecq’s Submission (2015), a dystopia that takes place seven years hence, may seem to create a window for change that’s simply too narrow for the genre. Who’s going to discover he loves Big Brother in that short a time—and in France!
But the frightening thing about Houellebecq is that he doesn’t peer into some remote future or, like Orwell, devise the premise of a transformational state of war; its setting is as familiar as this week’s headlines or, in most of its chapters, too trivial for the papers.
The year is 2022, and as the inside jacket states, “François is bored.” An undeniable fact that, but we have to gather this for ourselves because Submission is François’s journal. However, a few pages into the book may render “bored” a bit tame; utterly burned out is more like it.
The protagonist (certainly is no hero) is a professor of nineteenth-century French literature at Sorbonne III, an honest-to-God expert on J. –K. Huysmans. Notwithstanding his accomplishments and rank, middle age has worked its familiar magic on his psyche. Work, current affairs, intellectual pursuits, and just about everything else have paled. Suicide may be around the corner, but he seems to lack the energy for that. He believes in nothing and, with the exception of his closest girlfriend, Myriam, even sex (extremely graphic) has become dull.
Meanwhile, France is undergoing a change. I’m no expert on French elections, but with multiple parties they appear to resolve themselves through a series of run-offs. Among the parties in the novel are the Front National, the Socialists, and, oh yes, the Muslim Brotherhood. This last one is new for sure and, of course, does not exist in France now; but is it hard to imagine its genesis in, say, two years, and as a potent force?
Believe what you will about that proposition, while François is trying to revive his libido with online porn, the elections conclude with the run-offs and surely a backroom deal or two, putting the Brotherhood’s Ben Abbes in power. He seems tame enough. He even reads Chesterton and advocates distributism.
François, apolitical to the core, leaves Paris for the countryside on the advice of an insider, Tanneur, the husband of a faculty member of Sorbonne III. As he drives south to what will prove to be an eventual rendezvous with Tanneur and his wife, the signs of change appear—but they are not especially catastrophic: a few stores shut down, a torched car or two, and the dismissal of Tanneur’s wife (formerly François’s boss).
All national posts become dependent overnight on one’s religion, or, rather, on one religion, which includes the university. It almost goes without saying that that little change leaves François on the street, if a man with a nice apartment, a handsome pension, and no dependents can be called a skid-row bum. Myriam, who happens to be Jewish, emigrates to Tel Aviv, and although François indulges in some particularly raunchy sex escapades, he remains purposeless and, more to the point, he feels it.
What to do? Following the path of Huysmans, the man around whom he has based his academic reputation, François heads for a monastery at Rocamdour, searching for something that might give him reason to live; something, as the existentialists would say, to authenticate his being; or, as we would say, the faith to save his soul.
But it’s all for naught. The quiet moments of solitude, and the days in the Chapel of Our Lady before the image of the Black Virgin can’t revive François, a tree burned out well beyond its very roots. He’s soon back in Paris where he finds an invitation to a faculty party at the now Islamic University of Paris, Sorbonne.
The party, held at the Institute of the Arab World, is first-rate but rather staid, mainly because, as it slowly dawns on François, there are no women present. As for those attending, there are a few strangers among them as well as some old faces, and a fair amount of talk about Middle Eastern money (after all, this is a university). But the chief contact François makes is Rediger, president of the university. He wants François and the prestige associated with his scholarship back at Sorbonne III. An evening dinner is arranged.
And when it occurs, what a dinner—not lacking some outstanding wines—at Rediger’s magnificent Paris home. As François arrives he glimpses a pretty young girl in the foyer who quickly disappears—Rediger’s latest wife, as it happens; his forty-year-old first wife serves dinner. A Belgian, Rediger is a lapsed Catholic who for some years found solace in Western culture, notably the Art Nouveau of the bar at the Hotel Métropole de Bruxelles. The day the bar announced its closing he converted to Islam. Moreover, he’s convinced François should too.
The dinner has its predictable effect with François’s conversion in weeks and reinstatement. Paris is gradually changing: Arab businessmen are more evident on the trains and burkha-clad women dot the landscape. François has his prestige, more money, and anticipates the adulation of the youthful veiled girls. And like Winston Smith, in the end he regrets nothing.
Could Western Europe end this way? You’d better believe it—and quite possibly before 2022. How does that satisfy your curiosity?