The Dim-Post

November 26, 2016

What I’ve also been reading

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 5:55 am

I’ve read a lot of Ballard this year. Early on in his career he wrote two collections of linked short stories: Vermilion Sands and The Drowned World. They’re excellent. A lot better than Crash or High Rise, although you should probably read Crash anyway. (I still haven’t read Empire of the Sun.) Back in 1970 he said:

A lot of my prophecies about the alienated society are going to come true … Everybody’s going to be starring in their own porno films as extensions of the polaroid camera. Electronic aids, particularly domestic computers, will help the inner migration, the opting out of reality. Reality is no longer going to be the stuff out there, but the stuff inside your head. It’s going to be commercial and nasty at the same time.

I also read the Issacson biography of Steve Jobs. Bono is in it a lot, which I found a bit surprising.

Jobs was so furious that Palm was hiring some of his former employees that he complained to Bono, who was a cofounder of a private equity group, led by the former Apple CFO Fred Anderson, that had bought a controlling stake in Palm.

Apparently most of Bono’s wealth – which is vast – comes from his equity investments. U2 are arguably the most fashionable band in the world to hate nowadays – partly because Bono is so annoying; partly because their old songs are so ubiquitous it’s hard to pay attention to them as actual music. Naturally this makes me sympathetic to them. I heard All I Want is You on the radio the other day, for the first time in a while, and it’s a beautiful song.

June 4, 2016


Filed under: books — danylmc @ 11:54 am

I’ve been reading Orlando Figes’ history of the Russian Revolution. I’m only two thirds of the way through, but a couple of things have struck me:

  • The similarity of the Tsarist autocracy to the Communist dictatorship that followed it. Not just in the sense that they were both totalitarian, but the propaganda efforts that led to a Cult of Personality centred on the Tsar, the construction of a vast network of secret police and informers (the Okhrana) and the widespread use of terror and mass murder as a political weapon were all routine features of the Tsarist government.
  • Figes is very critical of Lenin. Which is fine – the guy was deified for decades by left-wing historians, he deserved to be taken down a few pegs. But even through Figes’ negative viewpoint it is striking how inept or inadequate or deluded or simply overwhelmed by events every other political actor was, both in the Tsarist regime and the Duma and in the provisional government after the February revolution, and in the various other left-wing or Communist factions. They tended to see themselves as saviours of Russia,  chosen by destiny. Napoleon was a popular model. And this heroic conception of themselves caused them to make catastrophic blunders. Lenin seems to have seen himself as almost an enemy of history (ironic given his belief in dialectical materialism). If he had historic models it was the Jacobins and the Paris Communards, and he knew he was very likely to wind up like them, executed by counter-revolutionary forces if he made any mistakes. Everyone else kept trying to seize their moment in history, and failing: Lenin was very, very cautious.
  •  The most interesting part of the story – I think – is the period just after the October revolution; Russian has descended into utter anarchy; Lenin and Trotsky and the rest of the Bolsheviks have seized power,  but they have almost no ability to govern or project force. The army, police and civil service are all on strike. Yet they are able, very quickly and methodically, to outwit and outmanoeuvre their rivals and enemies and establish a dictatorship.
  • And then everything they touch is an unmitigated disaster! That leads to further disasters, until the country and economy is such a shambles that only brutal repression can keep them in power. Political acumen does not translate into ability in government.
  • There are many quotable lines. I liked ‘The red terror did not come out of the blue.’ Also:

The time when the public lived in terror of the Cheka (the forerunner of the KGB) had still not arrived. Take, for example, the famous incident in the Moscow Circus. The humourless Chekists had taken exception to the anti-Soviet jokes of the clown BimBom and burst into the middle of his act in order to arrest him. At first the audience thought it was all part of the act; but Bim-Bom fled and the Chekists shot him in the back. People began to scream and panic ensued.

April 19, 2016

Notes on ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanigahara

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 9:29 pm
  • Warning: contains spoilers for much of the novel’s big reveals. Just like this NYRB review, only they don’t have a spoiler warning and just blurt out all of the huge plot twists, out of malice presumably, because their reviewer didn’t like it. Here’s a positive review at The Atlantic, which reckons it is the ‘great gay American novel’. I’m not an expert on gay American literature, but I’m also pretty confident that reviewer is wrong.
  • I loved the first third of the book and actually went around recommending it to people based on the beginning, and then finished it and decided I didn’t actually like it that much.
  • Here’s my problem. Yanighara wants to Say Something with this book. She’s making a statement about physical and sexual child abuse, and how in a lot of memoirs and literature it is often depicted as a traumatic obstacle in people’s lives for them to recover from, or overcome and then find happiness and fulfilment. But that isn’t how it works, she argues. The evil of abuse is that many victims never recover. Their lives and their ability to find happiness can be forever diminished, and the damage inflicted upon them goes on to contaminate the lives of those who love them.
  • I think that’s an awesome premise for a book. I don’t hold with the idea that good literature should be complex and mysterious and nuanced. More novelists should call it like they see it.
  • The obvious problem with writing a book like that is that it would be unrelentingly grim and unreadable. And Yanigahara’s solution to this is to go for high gothic melodrama. The abuse suffered by Jude, the main character is appalling. And then it gets worse. And then it gets even worse. And then it gets worse still in an incident which, if it happened in the real world would be a global news story but in the world of A Little Life in which everyone is, seemingly either a paedophile rapist or a doting saint, is unremarkable.
  • And then Jude and his friends have to live successful lives, both to dazzle and uplift the reader – for a while – and also make the point that no level of wealth or success can heal Jude. So the four friends become super wealthy lawyers and artists and architects and actors, all beloved and famous and celebrated, and live in fabulous apartments surrounded by beautiful art and cook lavish meals for brilliant dinner parties and travel the world and build dream homes and do virtuous things with their vast wealth. For such a serious and celebrated literary novel there’s an awful lot of Sex and the City to the book.
  • So Yanigahara is trying to make a point about the reality of abuse, but doing so in a book in which almost none of the plot is remotely realistic.
  • And she’s also structured it like a mystery novel. What happened to Jude? How did he get those mysterious scars? Keep reading to find out! This means that a lot of the payoffs – the satisfaction – in reading the novel is reading about child abuse. She’s very careful not to exploit or sensationalise this: there’s nothing graphic. What she does do is give the reader enough detail to create a negative space in which we can imagine it all ourselves. I don’t know if even the very worthy theme of the book quite justifies that.
  • The book is an experience though. The plot is not realistic, but it does take you deep into the life and mind of a very damaged soul and it (mostly) seems compelling and real.
  • I am usually an advocate of populist, accessible literature but in this case it feels like the author undermined what could have been a great book in order to make it more popular and accessible.

March 27, 2016

Provisional list of the best accessible books

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 7:28 pm

A few weeks ago I was arguing about lists of essential or ‘must-read’ books with Wallace Chapman, and it got me thinking. When I was in my late teens and early twenties I sought out lists of ‘Greatest Novels of All Time’, and tried to work my way through them. I read some great books (although many of them are no longer listed on lists of Great Novels, because literary fashions change and many things that were Great in the 1990s are no longer Great). But I mostly failed to read lots of difficult books, like Satre’s Nausea and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow which are still considered great but which I also think, with the benefit of hindsight, were completely ridiculous books to recommend to general readers interested in expanding their literary horizons. If you google ‘List of Great Novels’ you find this site, which aggregates such lists. It explains:

This list is generated from 107 “best of” book lists from a variety of great sources. An algorithm is used to create a master list based on how many lists a particular book appears on. Some lists count more than others. I generally trust “best of all time” lists voted by authors and experts over user-generated lists.

There are only two books in this list’s top ten that I would actually recommend to new and curious readers (Gatsby, Bovary). The first entry is Proust’s In Search of Lost Time which, yes, many academics and literary critics love and consider the greatest book ever. But it is seven volumes, each a thousand pages, consisting mostly of dense blocks of text with no breaks. I’ve read the first volume and thought it was sometimes brilliant but mostly intensely boring, and when I disclose this to fellow Proust readers they almost always sigh with relief and agree. It is, I think, the least helpful book you could possibly recommend to someone.

Joyce’s Ulysses is second. Now, I love that book. I pick it up often just to reread favorite passages. But I’d never recommend it to anyone unless they said, ‘I adore early twentieth century modernist literature but would really like to read a text set in Dublin, with stream-of-consciousness and elaborate word games. Can you suggest anything?’ If you’re someone who is going to enjoy Ulysses then you already know about it and if you don’t you probably won’t. Same with almost all the other high-ranked books on the aggregated list.

So, in that spirit, here is a list of books I wish I’d had all those years ago. Books I think are (a) very good and (b) accessible (c) short or shortish, in no particular order. They’re mostly novels, but not all. They are about 100,000 words or less, although I have guessed blindly about their word length. Most readers could read at least half of this list in the time it takes to finish Proust.

I’ve missed out many of my favourite books because they’re too long or too divisive or too obscure. My method was to look through my bookshelves and list the books I like that aren’t too long or difficult and which I think most people will enjoy. One book per author, the point being that people can explore to find authors they like. It is not ethnically diverse (suggestions welcome: hopefully when I update the list in a few years time I can fix that). Also, I’ve taken the precaution of listing less than a hundred books so when people point out omissions and I happen to agree with them I can add them in (or read them if I haven’t). The list is over the break.


September 29, 2015

Notes on A Place of Greater Safety

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 6:31 pm
  • Hilary Mantel’s novel about the French Revolution. It was published in 1992 and is the template for her books about Thomas Cromwell: character and research-based novelisation of pivotal yet complex historic events
  • I think it’s better than Wolf Hall. Actually, I think it is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Oddly I didn’t think this when I first read it which was about ten years ago. It’s a long, dense book: maybe I needed to read it twice? But, also, the reviews were quite cool when it was first published. Perhaps it was before its time and the success of the Cromwell books has retrospectively canonised it, somehow?
  • Or, because the technique is modern but the literary approach is 19th century? The book isn’t about a cryptic fragmented post-modern hypothesis, as was rather fashionable in the 90s; instead it’s about what it is about: the experience of being one of the central conspirators in the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.
  • Mantel doesn’t have a grand theory of history she’s trying to sell. In the book Robspierre anticipates Marx and argues to his friend Camille Desmoulins that the revolution would have happened without them, and their co-conspirator Danton. Economic and class forces do play a role. But so do whims, geopolitics, friendships, rivalries, romances and random chance. Individuals rise to power and are poised to take the revolution in one direction, but then they’re struck down by their enemies, or ill health, and someone else takes over and history veers off in another direction entirely. History, according to Mantel, is chaos.
  • I don’t know that much about the French Revolution. There isn’t a good English language history of it (so far as I know). I was struck by how many of the incidental characters are still famous ~225 years later. Louis 16th and Marie Antoinette, of course. Laclos, the author of Dangerous Liasons, is a calculating royalist agent. John-Paul Marat appears periodically to present sound logical reasons for the Revolution to murder all its enemies. The painter David apotheosises him after he is killed in his bath. Citizen de Sade (formerly a Marquis) makes an appearance. A heroic young artillery officer called Buonaparte is mentioned towards the end. Heady times.
  • It is one of the best books about politics. Mantel is very interested in the figures behind the development of the modern nation state and the immense power – for good and evil – of bureaucratic government. She is an expert on conspiracies, the power of journalism, demagoguery and transactional politics.
  • The title is a (a) a reference to the murderous ‘Committee for Public Safety’ which is my favourite sinister euphemism for a dictatorship ever, and (b) an ironic comment by Camille Desmoulins: the brutal reality of revolutionary and post-revolutionary politics forces the central characters to accept that to ensure their own personal safety they have to murder their enemies. And since almost everyone else with any power is a potential enemy, to keep themselves safe they’re forced into an endless cycle of paranoia, denunciations and liquidations. Trying to reach ‘a place of greater safety’ dooms them all.
  • Happy days

June 16, 2015

Notes on The Scarecrow by Ronald Hugh Morrieson

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 7:28 am
  • I’ve been meaning to read this for years.
  • The opening line is one of the most famous in New Zealand literature: ‘The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat cut.’
  • But it is a bit of a bait-and-switch. The book is mostly a tragi-comic, rather earthy coming-of-age story, mixed with domestic farce and comic sketches of provincial New Zealand life during the depression (Morrieson spent his life in Hawera). The gothic/thriller elements are minimal.
  • Which is a shame because those are the best things about the book. Some of the comic writing has dated well but most of it hasn’t, and Morrieson has a very limited repertoire. The Scarecrow is a short book but by the six-or-seventh lengthy dialogue between drunken halfwits – all written in dialect – it is no longer even slightly funny.
  • The book is weirdly similar to It by Stephen King: the small town setting; the heroes who are outcasts and misfits; the dual antagonists are a gang of young bullies and a shadowy killer; even the themes and narrative style are comparable. And the head bully’s name – Victor Lynch – is a very Stephen King name. Probably just a coincidence – King is a well-read guy but I still kind-of doubt he read The Scarecrow. 
  • Morrieson’s writing was unrecognised during his life but celebrated – in New Zealand at least – after his death, a fate he anticipated and dreaded. Both judgments feel right to me. He has all the skills and talent of a great writer and that’s worth acknowledging, but he never managed to produce a great book.

February 16, 2015

Another excerpt

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 6:28 pm

From Sir Vidia’s Shadow, Paul Theroux’s book about his friendship with V S Naipaul:

There was a story I never asked Vidia to verify – didn’t dare ask, because I wanted it to be true. If it was not true, it ought to have been.

Ved Mehta is a distinguished Indian writer. Vidia knew of him. Speaking of The New Yorker once, how under the editorship of William Shawn he could not interest the magazine in his writing, Vidia said, “Of course, they already have a tame Indian.”

Ved Mehta is also famously blind. A certain New Yorker doubted his blindness. Seeing Mehta at a New York party, speaking to a group of attentive people, holding court, the man decided to test it. He had always been skeptical that Mehta was totally blind, since in his writing he minutely described people’s faces and wrote about the nuances of color and texture with elaborate subtlety, making precise distinctions.

The man crept over to where Mehta was sitting, and as the writer continued to speak, the doubting man began making faces at him. He leaned over and waved his hands at Ved Mehta’s eyes. He thumbed his nose at Ved Mehta. He wagged his fingers in Ved Mehta’s face.

Still, Mehta went on speaking, calmly and in perfectly enunciated sentences, never faltering in his expansive monologue.

The man made a last attempt: he put his own face a foot away and stuck his tongue out. But Mehta spoke without pause, as if the man did not exist.

Realizing how wrong he had been, the man felt uncomfortable and wanted to go home. Leaving the party, he said to the hostess, “I had always thought Ved Mehta was faking his blindness, or at least exaggerating. I am now convinced that Ved Mehta is blind.”

“That’s not Ved Mehta,” the hostess said. “It’s V.S. Naipaul.”

February 10, 2015

Notes on Potiki by Patricia Grace

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 11:26 am
  • I went into Man Alone with the preconceived notion that it was a celebration of stoic kiwi masculinity, and it turned out to be the exact opposite. I knew that Grace’s Potiki was about a marae locked into conflict with a property developer, so I went in expecting a postcolonial version of a ‘Little Battler’ story. Then I read the prologue which is a very brief, beautiful story about the life of a wood carver and I thought that Grace was going to thwart my expectations.
  • She did and she didn’t. The plot of Potiki is painfully cliched. A materially poor but spiritually rich family living on a coastal marae fight off the predations of an evil, murderous drug-dealing super-capitalist property-developer who wants to knock down their meeting house and dig up their graveyard to build a road to his new aquarium. But the plot is just there as a means for Grace to make her statements about the past, present and future of Maori culture and Maori society. As an insight into Maori attitudes towards the land and its appropriation it is pretty much canonical. No one will ever put it as eloquently as Grace does here.
  • Plenty of writers write books they want to read. Before she wrote Potiki Patricia Grace was a teacher in both primary and secondary schools around New Zealand, and I suspect that she wrote a book that she wanted to teach. I also suspect she mostly had Maori teachers in mind, teaching Potiki to Maori students but the book is now a standard text in New Zealand secondary schools.
  • Maybe I’m wrong about the authors intention, but reading Potiki feels like homework. It’s beautifully written and very, very worthy, but I always felt like I’d eventually have to answer questions about it in an exam. Describe in your own words, using examples from the text, why Uncle Stan refused to sell the warenui to Dollarman. 
  • It’s not much fun, partly because of the homework vibe. But there’s a deeper problem. One of the basic components of story-telling is that things are not as they seem. Heroes turn out to be flawed. Villains have secret plans. But in Potiki everything is exactly as it seems. The heroes are unambiguously good. The property-developer is utterly evil. Stuff happens, but not in an interesting way.
  • You could say that this stark good vs evil depiction simply reflects the lived experience of Patricia Grace and the wider Maori perspective. That there was no moral ambiguity about property confiscation and the Maori struggle to win back or keep their land. And that’d be true, but truth doesn’t necessarily make for good literary fiction. You could also say that Grace isn’t writing literary fiction in the western sense: instead she’s writing a myth using the forms of her own tradition but in a modern, political context. That’s fine too, but ‘modern political myth’ is really just a euphemism for propaganda. I’m not criticizing Grace for writing her book the way she did – it was a vital counterbalance – just explaining why I didn’t enjoy reading it.
  • It is an interesting insight into how a Maori intellectual and artist saw the future of her people in the time before the Waitangi Tribunal became a force for meaningful change, and the growth of (some) iwi as major forces in the New Zealand economy. Grace’s vision for Maori was one of communal subsistence farming. She’s very scathing about the idea of Maori being involved in the tourist economy.
  • It was an unusual reading experience for me because Patricia Grace lives in Plimmerton, and the book is clearly set in the reserve in Hongoeka Bay (my copy of the book shows the bay on its front cover), and I grew up in Plimmerton during the period in which the book is set. So it feels a bit like my childhood friends and I are always hanging out at the periphery of the story. Some of the characters go to school, and I wondered if they sat at the desk beside mine. But I think it says something about the segregated nature of New Zealand back in the 1980s and 90s that I didn’t know, and don’t recall anyone ever mentioning that a major New Zealand novel had been published that was set in our tiny seaside community.
  • I might be wrong, but I don’t think anyone ever tried to build an aquarium and five-star hotel in Hongoeka Bay. As I recall – and my memory is vague – the marae’s dispute was with the quarry adjacent to it. The quarry wanted to expand, widen the road and so on, but it turned out they didn’t have a resource consent to operate there and when it became obvious to the owners that obtaining consent would be difficult, and very expensive they closed down. I walked around the coast from Pukerua Bay to Plimmerton over the summer, and most of the traces of the quarry – the stagnant pools, piles of rubble, deep gouges out of the cliffs – have been covered with new growth of native bush. And gorse.
  • Most of the early analysis of Potiki talks about Grace’s use of untranslated te reo at key points in the text and the absence of a glossary. It was a daring, provocative thing to do at the time, and back then it had the effect of dis-empowering pakeha readers who couldn’t understand it. Now someone as oblivious to tikanga-Maori as I am can read and understand Potiki with little trouble.

January 20, 2015

Vague Trotteresque Musings of the Day

Filed under: books,Politics — danylmc @ 2:02 pm

1. The Cult of Business.

Gordon Campbell has a post up about the similarities between John Key and David Cameron, and it touches on the issue of what these people actually believe in.

Robert Muldoon too, used to think that his own political instincts were always somehow mystically in sync with the mood and the tolerance levels of the nation. (In his last interview before his 1984 defeat, Muldoon told me that he had this innate ability to know New Zealanders, even though he hadn’t walked down Lambton Quay for over a decade, nor shopped for clothes in an actual shop for years – “ They bring in some shirts and I choose.”) With Key and Cameron, it is a far more conscious process, aided by focus groups. In both cases, being ever-willing to shift ground in order to perpetuate themselves in power is what passes for a political philosophy :

I was thinking about this very issue a bit over the summer. What does the right believe? I feel like the core beliefs have shifted in the wake of the GFC, but to what?

My theory is that contemporary right-wing thought has moved on from ‘neo-liberalism’ and its attendant belief in the magical power of free markets or the panacea of economic growth. What they believe in now is ‘business’, in much the same way that early Christianity transferred its system of belief from the mysticism of the Gospels and the coming Kingdom of Heaven to the temporal supremacy of the Church, and Communist intellectuals transferred their belief in dialectical materialism to the primacy and infallibility of ‘The Party’. Right-wing intellectual thought, such as it is, is focused on the primacy and infallibility of ‘business’ and the wisdom and needs of the private sector. So we have politicians like John Key and Steven Joyce, who are themselves revered as ‘business’ (ironically, every time they sit down to do a deal with the private sector they get comprehensively beaten at vast expense to the taxpayer) and who have no ideological problem with picking winners or extensive interference in the market, or just giving state money away to private companies. The free market isn’t important. Business is important. The state can intervene in the economy – massively – but at the service of business. Ideally it should be in partnership with business or, failing that, managed by someone from the private sector ideally a membership of the modern post-capitalist priesthood, our versions of the college of Cardinals, or the politburo: a ‘business-leader’.

Here’s a silly but – I think, telling – example: When Grant Robertson was announced as Labour’s Finance Spokesperson, various National-Party and ACT people scoffed at the appointment. Robertson has no private-sector experience. He wouldn’t win the respect of ‘business’. I pointed out on twitter that Bill English doesn’t have private-sector experience either: he was a Treasury analyst and then a politician. A National Party organiser quickly corrected me. English had worked on his parent’s farm in Dipton. Private sector! Which sounds absurd, because Robertson ran the Prime Minister’s Office, which – to me at least – is slightly more impressive and more of a qualification for being a senior Minister. But if the mystical properties of the private sector are at the core of your belief system then obviously English’s experience has blessed him in a way that Robertson’s has not. To an atheist the difference between someone claiming to be a bishop in the Catholic Church, and one who has actually been consecrated via apostolic succession is meaningless. To a believer it is everything.

So here’s a solid prediction based on this hypothesis: Paula Bennett will never be the leader of the National Party. She’s not ‘business’.

2. Nostalgia, mid-point Generation X literature and generational attitudes to climate change. 

A few of the novels I’ve read recently (The Marriage Plot, Wolf in White Van, The Interestings) have been set in the 1980s, or indulged in a little nostalgia for 1980s youth culture. Up until now, whenever I’ve read a novel dealing with childhood nostalgia it’s almost always been a boomer author pining for the 1950s and 60s, but Gen-X authors are now of an age when they’re looking back to their/our own youth.

Nothing wrong with that. But one of the features of growing up in the 80’s I really don’t miss is the Cold War and perennial threat of nuclear apocalypse. I don’t remember how old I was when I learned about the possibility of nuclear war. I do remember that whenever the electricity went out I always checked to see if my digital watch was still working. I knew that the EMP of a nuclear blast would disable my watch, so if I could still tell time then a nuclear war probably hadn’t broken out. Maybe I worried about these things a little more than most kids, but everyone was aware of it.

And then the Cold War just ended. The Warsaw Pact collapsed and the looming threat of global annihilation suddenly wasn’t there anymore. Which was awesome, but I do wonder if it impacts on generational attitudes towards climate change. Do most people of my generation and older sub-consciously equate the slow motion catastrophe of climate change with the threat of nuclear war and just sort of hope that climate change will painlessly vanish as a problem, somehow, the same way thermonuclear war did?

January 13, 2015

The treachery of images; also, links

Filed under: books,media,satire — danylmc @ 6:28 am

I like this essay by Teju Cole on the issues around Charlie Hebdo and free speech. Also, this piece by Laura Miller questioning whether the critics describing Charlie Hedbo as racist know what they’re talking about. This problem occurred to me yesterday when a bunch of people I know linked approvingly to this column critical of Charlie Hebdo, explaining why its cartoons were racist and offensive, which included this point:

I know that the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo identify as left-libertarian atheists, and that they’re “equal-opportunity offenders” —the exact same background and mindset as Trey Parker and Matt Stone, as Seth MacFarlane, as your typical 4chan troll. I know that, ironically, the last issue printed before the shooting was mocking a self-serious right-wing racist doomsday prophet and his fear of a Muslim takeover

The ‘self-serious right-wing racist doomsday prophet ‘ referred to here is Michel Houellebecq. I don’t know a lot about French satire but I do know that this is a dubious way to describe a guy who is arguably the most acclaimed novelist in contemporary French literature, whose last book was a parody of a thriller in which a psychopath gruesomely murdered Houellebecq himself (which won the Goncourt award, the French equivalent of the Booker Prize). His new book Soumission does imagine a France surrendering to Islam. But, via the Guardian’s review:

Some in France have already complained that the novel fans right-wing fears of the Muslim population, but that is to miss Houellebecq’s deeply mischievous point. Islamists and anti-immigration demagogues, the novel gleefully points out, really ought to be on the same side, because they share a suspicion of pluralist liberalism and a desire to return to “traditional” or pre-feminist values, where a woman submits to her husband – just as “Islam” means that a Muslim submits to God.

But Soumission is, arguably, not primarily about politics at all. The real target of Houellebecq’s satire – as in his previous novels – is the predictably manipulable venality and lustfulness of the modern metropolitan man, intellectual or otherwise. François himself happily submits to the new order, not for any grand philosophical or religious reasons, but because the new Saudi owners of the Sorbonne pay much better – and, more importantly, he can be polygamous. As he notes, in envious fantasy, of his charismatic new boss, who has adroitly converted already: “One 40-year-old wife for cooking, one 15-year-old wife for other things … no doubt he had one or two others of intermediate ages.”

The novel ends in an almost science-fictional conditional mood, with François looking forward dreamily to his own conversion and a future of endless sensual gratification.

Houellebecq’s previous book was called The Map and the Territory, which is ironic because him and a lot of what’s happening in France are now subject to a classic map-territory problem: we’re confusing descriptions of what’s happening for the events themselves. It’s a reminder that the pundits confidently translating French (and Islamic) culture for us so they can tell us what to think about it all don’t necessarily have the faintest idea what they’re talking about.

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