I have a thing for dystopian novels and an ambition to complete lists of any sort. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I have an urge to read whatever one would call “the dystopia canon”. Most of the classics are surprisingly easy to read and not emotionally challenging at all. But sometimes, I have to make a decision, like, say, whether or not to read the latest Houllebecq novel (that I have been warned about). Being on a train for 8 hours, I decided to give it a try. In a way, I feared it. In the end, it was much easier to stand than I thought.
The dystopian scenario, brought about by the rise of the Muslim brothers in France in the 2020s, is neither cleverly thought through nor described thoroughly (or plausibly, for that matter). I suppose that the author is happy to rely on racist prejudices on his readers’ side when it comes to setting the frame for the plot. This frame is, in short: a Muslim party creates exactly the sort of society that today’s European right-wing parties are allegedly really, really afraid of. Much more interesting than this scenario in itself is the protagonist’s reaction to it: For the most part, there is none. Towards the end, Houllebecq lets his protagonist – a white, male, slightly sexist but not openly misogynistic university professor – sympathize with the new, extremely patriarchal order. Whenever the first-person narrator touches upon this dimension of the social changes (at all), he does so with nothing but his personal preferences in mind: How does the protagonist feel about the fact that prostitution is still available under the new regime? (Relieved.) How does he feel about the fact that women don’t wear mini-skirts anymore? (Sad at first, but then relieved. Decreasing sexual pressure. Helps him focus.) How does he feel about the fact that there are no female professors at his university anymore? (Sad. The mixers were more fun with women present.)
All this would almost have the potential to at least create an interesting ambivalence: the privileged, white, Western-educated, academically successful protagonist is, in a way, even less concerned with women’s rights and women’s well-being than the religious fundamentalists who build an openly patriarchal system on the basis of religious assumptions about what is best for whom. Unfortunately, the affirmation of anti-Islamic stereotypes throughout the book takes up much more space than what might be a clever but subtle critique of Western arrogance and sexism. Highlighting the latter would need a lot of effort – probably much more than the book deserves.