The Tyranny of Desire

In new novels, Michel Houellebecq and Margaret Atwood wonder if sexual relationships can thrive without freedom.

Shonagh Rae

In Margaret Atwood’s now iconic dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, published 30 years ago and set sometime around 2005, a polluted United States with a fertility crisis has become the repressive Republic of Gilead, ruled by Christian fundamentalists who staged a violent coup in the name of repelling “Islamic fanatics.” A new order of family values—prescribed by a patriarchy intent on boosting fecundity and implemented by a hierarchy of women—has eclipsed the godless, materialist, promiscuous, barren past. But, as Atwood reveals, desire is a difficult thing to stamp out. The handmaids, pressed into service, don’t discover joy in the “ceremonies” they’re forced to participate in; nor do the powerful men charged with repopulating the planet seem to find this world of regimented sexuality even remotely fulfilling.


But what if authoritarian traditionalism promised authentic sexual liberation, and happiness along with it? Against a 21st-century backdrop of online matchups, Internet porn, and family flux (not to mention Fifty Shades of Grey fervor), such a prospect offers good grist for timely fictional rumination. In his latest novel, Submission, Michel Houellebecq spins out his own, more muted version of a fundamentalist future—the French vote in a government of Muslim moderates in 2022—and he rewrites the Atwoodian script in the process. Confronted with Sharia-lite in the country that Mark Twain once described as having “neither winter nor summer nor morals,” Houellebecq’s deeply alienated narrator, a Sorbonne professor named François, actually welcomes the reining-in of a libido that has brought him little real pleasure. “As the new Islamic regime pushed women’s clothing in the direction of decency, I felt my sexual impulses gradually diminish,” he explains. He sounds nothing so much as relieved. Atwood, meanwhile, returns to probe sexual pieties in The Heart Goes Last, a black comedy set in a near future when impoverished Americans willingly enter prison to get away from crime. She stages zany escapades to test a rather different provocative hypothesis: Perhaps a loss of freedom could prove the ultimate aphrodisiac.

Not surprisingly, the two novels could hardly be less similar in texture and tone. Houellebecq, who is in his late 50s, is a curious blend of enfant terrible and dirty old man of the French literary establishment. Depressed and solitary narrators steeped in cultural pessimism—thinly veiled versions of himself (two have been named Michel)—are his trademark. Unmoored by the 1960s and an ethos of relentless gratification, his characters engage in empty sexual encounters played out in extravagant detail. Lasting human connection eludes them, and their impulse to romanticize a purer, more orderly past gives Houellebecq’s fiction a reactionary and misogynist flavor. In Platform (2001), Houellebecq added anti-Islamist tendencies to the list of sins that get him into trouble. He imagined a holiday camp for sex tourists being blown up by Muslim fundamentalists, after which he landed in court on charges of racial hatred for referring to Islam as “the stupidest religion.”

Atwood, by contrast, is a prolific standard-setter in the realm of “speculative fiction.” She creates dizzyingly inventive futuristic worlds only a few degrees removed from reality, and specializes in compelling female voices. Her dystopian works are inherently, but not polemically, political. Atwood, who is Canadian, wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in response to American friends in the 1980s who kept saying “It can’t happen here” as they watched the rise of religious fundamentalism in the Middle East and Asia. Clear-sighted about the worst tendencies of men (and women, too) in power, her fiction returns repeatedly to the resilience of the human spirit.

But if you seated Houellebecq and Atwood next to each other at a dinner party and he was in the mood to talk (how’s that for speculative fiction?), their new novels would supply them with a common question to debate: Could more-restrictive societies possibly point the way to more-fulfilling sexual and romantic relationships? Both take evident pleasure in concocting ingenious sociopolitical backgrounds for their thought experiments, but their real interest seems to lie in their characters’ more intimate urges and confusions.

Nan. A Talese

Atwood wrote The Heart Goes Last as a serial, and the bumpy result isn’t about to replace The Handmaid’s Tale on school reading lists. The novel opens with a young married couple, Stan and Charmaine, living in their car after a financial meltdown has wiped out jobs in the Northeast. Marauding gangs rule the streets, and an ad for a gated community called the Positron Project lures them in with guarantees of extreme security: On a rotating schedule, residents spend a month in a 1950s-style idyll of cultural conformity (no porn, no “undue” violence, mostly Doris Day movies and show tunes for entertainment) and a month as prison inmates whose work somehow (Atwood is vague on the economics) generates income to support the town.

Houellebecq develops a not-implausible electoral scenario: A charismatic Muslim Brotherhood leader forms a coalition with the Socialist Party to defeat Marine Le Pen’s National Front. But beyond the political specifics, Houellebecq’s narrator—whose melancholic pomposity has an oddly charming way of verging on self-mockery—supplies only a hazy vision of a Muslim France; women, seemingly unprompted, willingly leave the workforce when offered generous family subsidies and start covering their bodies almost overnight. With a more acutely sardonic eye, François probes the academic maneuvering at the Sorbonne. It is taken over by fabulously wealthy Saudi Arabian donors who proceed to offer male members of the faculty either a generous pension to retire or, if they convert to Islam and remain, a salary boost and polygamous family stability.

Houellebecq’s real focus, though, is on François’ preelection state of profound ennui, which primes him to consider the university’s proposal to stay on more seriously than he himself can quite believe. Given Houellebecq’s proclivity for punctuating his novels with scenes of hard-core sex (the writer Julian Barnes once described them as “curiously both pornographic and sentimental”), what stands out in Submission is François’ fixation on the mystery of how people form lasting relationships that transcend fickle desire. To be sure, the novel delivers a good dose of Houellebecq’s typical near-absurdist eroticism. Watching an online video featuring group fellatio, François notes how “the penis would pass from one mouth to the other, tongues crossing paths like restless flocks of swallows in the somber skies above the Seine-et-Marne when they prepare to leave Europe for their winter migration.” But Houellebecq reserves his parodic best to convey François’ dulled appetite for everything, from sushi to sodomy. “I kind of wanted to fuck her,” he thinks when his girlfriend comes over, “but I also kind of wanted to die.”

François—abandoned by that girlfriend (she flees with her Jewish family to Israel) as by her predecessors—finds himself yearning for the security of emotional communion. “A couple is a world, autonomous and enclosed, that moves through the larger world essentially untouched,” he reflects. “On my own, I was chipped and cracked all over.” Et voilà: As he ponders the new regime in France, with its emphasis on conservative family structures and the elevation of “dominant males,” he feels he has perhaps glimpsed salvation. Offered several women to marry—he won’t even have to choose them—he could find solace in the traditionalist framework of the new religious order. His escape from a hollow life punctuated by heartless sexual encounters is at hand. “A woman is human, obviously,” François thinks, “but she represents a slightly different kind of humanity. She gives life a certain perfume of exoticism.”

Atwood, too, visits sexual malaise on her characters, portraying a pre-Positron experience of marital boredom for prim Charmaine and frustrated Stan. In their high-stress existence in the grim outside world, she’s the classic uptight wife. He, meanwhile, fantasizes about a spouse ready to go wild with him. Newly confined, with needs met, fears quelled, and urgent choices banished, they’re suddenly confronted not with ebbing ids but with unexpected desires. Atwood lets Charmaine loose in a way Stan has often dreamed of—only he doesn’t get the benefit. Until now a model of what Stan describes as “quasi-virginal restraint,” Charmaine sneaks off for rough sex with the husband in the couple who inhabits their house during the months she and Stan are on prison duty. “She did love Stan, but it was different,” Charmaine muses, with her thrillingly coercive lover fresh in mind. “A different kind of love. Trusting, sedate. It went with pet fish, in fishbowls—not that they had one of those—and with cats, perhaps. And with eggs for breakfast.”

Atwood strives for less broad caricature with Stan, though the catalyst for his adventures in the novel is farcically predictable. He’s turned on when he finds a steamy note under the refrigerator, which he assumes the wife in the alternate couple has left for her husband—a pair, Stan thinks enviously, that enjoys just the conjugal bliss he dreams of. Actually, as he soon discovers, the note is from Charmaine to her lover. Atwood proceeds to send Stan—who endures a brief stint as a sex slave to the wife in that other couple—on a tour of far-fetched solutions to the vagaries of desire. He spends time working in a Positron factory that manufactures “possibilibots,” or humanoid, sexually functional robots, and is repulsed by them—by “the motion of thighs and abdomens, like some grotesque art installation,” and the smell of plastic. Meanwhile, he learns that the Positron overseers are perfecting surgical methods to alter brains so that, upon emerging from the anesthetic, the patients are besotted—sexually and romantically—with whomever they first lay eyes on.

As Houellebecq nears the end of Submission, he holds out to François a version of just such a spell of enchantment to nudge him toward converting. Forget the big salary hike offered by the Sorbonne. It’s the prospect of being granted up to three utterly devoted, nubile wives in veils that promises the liberation François thinks he wants from his own ungratifying impulses. His presumption that his future wives will be similarly fulfilled simply by virtue of having no other choice gets some support—or so it seems—from the closing pages of The Heart Goes Last. Exhilarated though Charmaine has been by the bout of unbridled lust that she dared indulge within the safety of Positron, she once again worries about being out of control as she imagines resuming life with Stan. The new brain surgery beckons as a way to have everything decided for her—to be free of the prickling sensation in her gut that tells her she’ll never be completely satisfied.

But Atwood has another twist in store, and in any case Stan’s journey seems to have left him unlikely to yearn for a Charmaine programmed to fulfill his every urge—or to imagine that she would be content if he were neurochemically tweaked so as to adore and crave only her. Desire, Atwood implies, is too paradoxical in nature to make for a happy ending. “All’s well that ends well,” thinks Charmaine. “Not that this is the end … It’s the beginning, a new beginning. The beginning as it should have been.” Yet the fresh start she anticipates features the same two people who were bored before, and then frayed their bond by chasing illicit thrills.

Marriage and relationships can be regulated, and choice can be constrained, but human urges will forever be governed by a more incalculable rule: The allure of the new, or of the semblance of the new, may well be irresistible. As François contemplates his shot at what looks like uncomplicated happiness, he doesn’t stop to think about the implications either. “I’d be given another chance; and it would be the chance at a second life, with very little connection to the old one.” Except, of course, those lives will have one thing in common: restless, rootless François.

By Michel Houellebecq
By Margaret Atwood

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