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.”