Submission by Michel Houellebecq; trans. Lorin Stein, book review: Fear and self-loathing in the fifth republic

In a surprise move, France's foremost social satirist takes aim – not at Muslims but at benighted, modern-day France
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It is almost exactly seven months since the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, were attacked, on the same day that Michel Houellebecq's novel, Soumission, was published. It dramatised a near-future France in which Muslims had grasped power, and the collision of art and reality was too close for comfort. Houellebecq cut short his promotional activity for the book and headed for the hills, while the Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, issued a statement explaining: "France is not Michel Houellebecq. It is not intolerance, hate, and fear."

The dust has settled and the surprise in Submission, its English translation, is that the novel does not aim its hate, fear and intolerance where one might expect, although Houellebecq does have a track record, declaring some time ago that while he thought all monotheistic religions dumb, Islam was "dumbest". It seems fitting for France's foremost social satirist to have channelled that thought into fiction, and conceived a dystopia in which a Muslim coalition government is busy imposing a soft form of Sharia law on France.

The 2022 election sees the electorate divided between Marine Le Pen's far-right Front National party and the Muslim Brotherhood before the charismatic Muhammed Ben Abbes sweeps to power. He has a charm reminiscent of De Gaulle's, we are told, and policies that spin the Caliphate into a respectable alternative to the nation's crumbling forces of republicanism and socialism. The French voters buy into Islam with the same docile submission of true believers, but for practical benefits – Gulf and Saudi money is poured into educational institutions, women are given family subsidies. In Houellebecq's dystopia, French women –50 per cent of the electorate, after all – agree to return to hearth and home and wear veils, which certainly stretches believability.

François is a typical Houellebecq antihero: a narcissitic, over-sexed university lecturer at the Sorbonne, who spends his days dialling out for hookers when he is not dialling in for internet porn. A 44-year-old who cuts loose a girlfriend at the end of each academic year and finally settles for the consistency of paid sex, there are the same pornographic interludes here that usually accompany Houellebecq's fictions. Regime change forces him out of his job, and then entices him to return once a hoped-for Islamic conversion is made – now obligatory for tenure at the Islamic University of Sorbonne-Paris.

The racial stereotypes and clichéd binaries that may have led to Mr Valls' words are there: the hook-nosed Arab, the Saudi profligates who flood France with their petro-dollars and under-age wives. On the other side of the equation are the Jewish victims, in the form of François' tight-bodied girlfriend whose family flees to Israel, although it is understood that Ben Abbes is too much the politician to sanction persecution. The Nazi undertones are there, though, in the expansionist desire to win over the West and extend its reach, along with the historic instinct of the French to collaborate – to roll over and accept the new authoritatrian regime.

Houellebecq has said he originally conceived the novel to be about Catholicism but could not make it work; one wonders whether Islam served better for its shock value. Yet the hatred is not aimed at the Other, but at the fractures in French secular, liberal identity itself. François' professional interest lies in the ideas of the 19th-century novelist, Joris-Karl Huysmans, whose writing and life were connected to the Decadents until a Catholic conversion. François is searching for his own meanings in a late-capitalist, post-everything world. A nostalgic road trip around France sees him back at the same monastery where Huysmans lived, in hope for the same epiphany perhaps, though he can stick it for only two days.

Submission is polemical and comic by turns, and is best appreciated in the latter register. There are great tracts of political theory and philosophy that are barely digested in the fiction and appear as stodgy conversation. Its comedy is better, and sharper. What the novel is not is a dystopia about Muslim invasion. Its fear and doubt is angled at the end-point of France's enlightenment values.

The crisis is particularly male, too. "Christianity was at heart a religion for women," François reflects, and he find a muscularity in Islam – the lure of polygamy – that chimes with his libido. François draws parallels between the Muslim condition and his own, even likening himself to veiled women. We're not so different, he seems to say, as long as I can have the four wives. Islamic dystopia becomes the Stepford husband's sexual utopia. In the absence of belief, sex suffices. In the end, Submission is about the pain of being a middle-class Frenchman, nostalgia for his glorious, lost identity and self-loathing for all that has replaced it.