Michel Houellebecq is, simply, a satirist. He likes to take what’s happening now and imagine what would happen if it kept on happening. That’s what satirists do. Jonathan Swift saw that the English were treating the Irish as animals; what if they took the next natural step and ate their babies?
Houellebecq is not merely a satirist but—more unusually—a sincere satirist, genuinely saddened by the absurdities of history and the madnesses of mankind. He doesn’t “delight in depicting our follies,” as reviewers like to say; he’s made miserable by them. French reviews and American previews of “Submission” might leave one with the impression of a sardonic, teeth-baring polemic about the evils of Islam, the absurdities of feminism, the terrible demoralization of French life. In truth, the tone of the book is melancholic rather than polemical. Life makes Houellebecq blue. “The totality of animals, the crushing majority of men, live without ever finding the least need for justification,” his narrator, a literature professor at the Sorbonne, reflects. “They live because they live, and that’s all, and that’s how they reason—and then I suppose they die because they die, and this, in their eyes, ends the analysis.” That’s Houellebecq’s typical tone; the book’s virtues lie in his mordant, disabused eye for depressing details of French life.
Even if, sentence by sentence, Houellebecq is not a writer to envy, certainly he does have a voice of his own, one of slightly resigned sociological detachment. In the very first pages of the new book, he remarks, apropos the uses of a university degree in literature, that “a young woman applying for a job as a saleswoman at Céline or Hermès will, in the first place, have to take care of her appearance, but a literature degree could constitute a secondary attribute pleasing to the employer, suggesting a certain intellectual agility that might indicate a potential evolution of her career—literature, in place of useful skills, still has a positive connotation in the domain of the luxury industry.” You master Proust to become a better salesgirl, and what else would you expect? The commodification of the world and the art and the people in it leaves Houellebecq unexcited.