Charlie & Houellebecq

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I pay my deepest respects to the staff at Charlie Hebdo. In the same breath, I mock the cowardice of the gunmen that gunned them down. The free press is everything, satire first and foremost.

Roped loosely into the conversation around the killings is the new novel by the French novelist Michel Houellebecq, released in France on the same day as the attack. The cover of Charlie Hebdo this week satirizes Houellebecq himself, caricatured, declaring, “In 2015, I lose my teeth. In 2022, I will do Ramadan.” The premise of Houellebecq’s new novel has a moderate Muslim politician winning election as France’s president in 2022 and, with monetary backing from the Gulf States, transforming French culture in that image — women completing their education at age 11, readying to serve their household; polygamy becoming legal; and society itself becoming economically successful as it absorbs and internalizes these cultural transformations.

I can’t speak to Houellebecq’s new novel, which is titled Submission. I assume it will take a year or so until it is published in English, in translation. But I’m a completist of his work until now. I read — I think we all read, back then? — The Elementary Particles, in the late 1990s. The themes of that book, his first novel, inform Houellebecq’s fiction in general. It was his second book, Platform (2001), that made me think this might be the writer of our age. Two of his more recent novels, The Possibility of an Island (2005) and The Map and the Territory (2010) deal with issues of cults and belief (Island) and art and fame (Territory) — though those brief summaries do no justice to the novels themselves, even as I found the latter to be a vital accompaniment to The Goldfinch, which I pushed myself through around the same time a year or two ago.

If you’ve never read any Houellebecq, I’d break with the conventional wisdom and suggest starting with The Map and The Territory, then moving on to Platform. Maybe. All of Houellebecq’s novels are raw, misogynist, and brutal to digest. But as the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris remind us, so is life itself.