Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq (2019)

9th May 2021

There can be little doubt that Michel Houellebecq is one of the most controversial modern novelists. This is partly because of the subjects about which he chooses to write, but also due to the political perspectives that his characters often represent, his occasional descriptions of scenes of disturbing horror and – in particular – his regularly graphic (if not pornographic) presentations of sexual intimacy. I find that his are novels often to be read through gritted teeth.

I graduated to Serotonin – his latest novel, translated by Shaun Whiteside – via three of his earlier works: Atomised (1998), which relates the contrasting stories of two half-brothers; Platform (2001), which is centred around the overseas sex tourism industry; and Submission (2015), in which, in the near future, a Muslim political party defeats the National Front in a French General Election and governs the country according to Islamic law. (Somewhat eerily, the publication of the last of these took place on the same day as the murders at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris).

Not surprisingly, Houellebecq’s novels provoke controversy: Platform led to him being taken to court (and subsequently acquitted) for inciting racial hatred. Likewise, the critics are divided. Whilst The New York Times described Atomised as “a deeply repugnant read”, the same novel won the Prix Novembre. Houellebecq has also won the prestigious Prix Goncourt and, in 2019, was made a Chevalier of the Legion D’Honneur.

It has to be said that Serotonin has a generally downbeat feel. The central character is the 46 year-old Florent-Claude Labrouste who, having reached a career dead-end as a middle-grade civil servant and realised that his time with a Japanese woman twenty years younger has also run its course, basically decides to run down the clock without leaving any traces. He leaves his job, moves out of his Paris apartment and changes his bank accounts, choosing instead to stay in a series of mid-to-low range hotels – which are difficult to find because of his requirement for a room that permits smoking – and vacation homes. “So I was now at the stage where the ageing animal, wounded and aware of being fatally injured, seeks a den in which to end its life”.

For much of the time, Labrouste ruminates on the relationships he has had with various women in his life and, indeed, on a couple of occasions, he succeeds in meeting up again with previous partners, though to his regret both times. All this allows Houellebecq a free rein to re-visit familiar carnal territory. In a separate episode, there is a thoroughly unpleasant scene (not with Labrouste) involving a paedophile. Later, Labrouste speculates about whether to bring about a reconciliation with the veterinary surgeon Camille – the true love of his life – through a particularly shocking act of violence on an innocent third party.

All this is in keeping with earlier works in the Houellebecq oeuvre. He is not an easy read. What is not always clear, however, is whether such scenes are legitimate representations of the thoughts and actions of credible (and disturbed) individuals or simply gratuitous inserts by the author. I certainly thought that one casual – and crude – aside about “the Queen of England” was cheap and distasteful.

On the plus side, an interesting feature of Houellebecq’s novels is that, within the broad themes that he explores – politics, biology, economics, philosophy, religion, et al – it is the detail that drives the story forward. The increased release of serotonin in Labrouste’s body is the brain’s response to his growing dependence on a newly available anti-depressant drug, Captorix; in turn, the consequences of that include impotence and the loss of libido. The inevitable vicious circle is established, though it has to be said that the remedy suggested by one of Labrouste’s doctors does rank on the side of the unusual.

At the core of Serotonin is Labrouste’s visit to an old student friend of his – Aymeric d’Harcourt-Olonde – who is a dairy farmer in Normandy. This permits Houellebecq to explore another key theme in his work: the juxtaposition of the individual’s story – in this case Labrouste’s descent into complete solitude and despair – with the author’s updated reading on the general state of France. Aymeric’s business is in terminal decline – explained by ruthless competition in the global economy and changes in the European Union’s subsidy policies – and the actions that he and his fellow farmers take inevitably lead to a violent confrontation with the armed police.

There are obvious parallels here with the Yellow Vest movement (le mouvement des gilets jaunes) of grassroots political protest in contemporary France and it was in these aspects of the novel that I found I was most interested. In addressing the underlying tensions that are evident in modern French society – prompted by a potent cocktail of economics, religion and technology – Michel Houellebecq clearly touches a raw nerve for both his critics and supporters alike.

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