NOVEMBER 12, 2019
FRANCE’S MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ leads something of a double career. A novelist of Prix Goncourt–winning distinction, Houellebecq is also his country’s best-selling author abroad and, on many accounts, currently its best. He is also reliably a prophet of current events: his third novel, Platform, featured an Islamist attack on a Thai sex resort and was published just days before 9/11; a later novel, Submission, which imagined France’s election of a Muslim party president, appeared the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and seemed a novelistic auger of the gruesome wave of terrorism that roiled France during the next few years. Whatever, Houellebecq’s 1994 debut novel, turned out to be equally prescient, though it took more than two decades for its prophecies to take shape. A commentary on male sexual frustration, Whatever, as the author of a New York Times essay argued in 2018, is a psychological account of involuntary celibacy and the violence that erotic isolation breeds.
Serotonin, Houellebecq’s eighth novel, now translated by Shaun Whiteside, is less clearly a novel of ideas than previous works, such as The Elementary Particles, which scandalized the French bien pensant reading public with its unequivocal condemnation of post-1960s moral liberalism. Serotonin’s protagonist, Florent-Claude Labrouste, is, like Houellebecq before his literary stardom, an agronomist working for the French government. His girlfriend, Yuzu, a Japanese woman 20 years his junior, lives with him in an unsightly Parisian high-rise and, among other irregularities, has a penchant for sex acts with nonhuman partners. Florent-Claude’s hatred of Yuzu is matched only by his hatred of his job — and, the reader learns early on, of life in general. He decides to quit his post as an agricultural consultant; in fact, he opts to disappear tout court, abandoning his apartment and Yuzu, taking a hotel room in Paris’s 13th arrondissement.
At this point an odyssey of memory begins. Florent-Claude pines over lost loves, regrets the indifference and infidelity that destroyed them, and faces the growing likelihood — having begun an anti-depressant treatment that effectively castrates him — that his sexual life is permanently in the past. Indeed, much of the novel is a study in the tragic sense of life, that very un-American tendency to see the pleasures of life and even the seeming certainties of cultural continuity as not only fleeting but also inexorably threatened by change and entropy. At 46, Florent-Claude can no longer profiter de la vie — a frequent injunction one hears among the French, which is better translated not as enjoy life but, rather more desperately in this case, take what you can get from life.
Florent-Claude knows he is damned. He also knows that his damnation, that of a materially well-to-do but diminutive, sexually frustrated white male, will evoke the pity of precisely no one. His case is deplorable, and much of Serotonin feels like an exercise in compassion for a man whose abjection wobbles between sincerity and self-indulgence.
Serotonin’s intensely psychological focus is something of a departure from Houellebecq’s other novels, which tend to be heavily concerned with broad social, political, and moral questions. Even so, the novel manages to be prescient vis-à-vis France’s current political controversies, and it is in this respect that Houellebecq once again puts on the mantle of a literary prophet.
Published in French January 2019, in the midst of France’s “Yellow Vests” protests, Serotonin also recounts the travails of a divorced Norman aristocrat, Aymeric d‘Harcourt-Olonde, who is struggling to maintain his dairy farm in the face of EU milk quotas. Aymeric’s wife, Cécile, has left him for a musician and lives with her lover and the divorced couple’s two daughters in London. Aymeric’s contact with his children is infrequent, and he palliates his loneliness with generous servings of vodka. His case is also, as the French say, à déplorer.
Aymeric is also Florent-Claude’s best friend from college, a collector of automatic weapons, and, most consequential for the novel’s plot, a fomenter of rebellion among the peasant farmers of the Norman region of La Manche, whose millennial livelihood is directly in the sights of EU economic policy. In the novel’s most memorable scene, Aymeric and a group of local farmers block a freeway and proceed to blow up half a million euros worth of rented, state-owned heavy farm equipment. As CRS riot police close in on the platoon of enraged dairy farmers, Aymeric puts his rifle to his head and commits suicide in front of journalists who have arrived to record the event. The CRS, meanwhile, believing they have just been shot at, open fire on Aymeric’s gun-wielding comrades and kill nearly a dozen of them. Florent-Claude, who is rather serendipitously able to watch the events unfold from a nearby hill, recounts the bloody scene in Houellebecq’s characteristically clinical style.
In the wake of the killings, France is forced to grapple with its acquiescence to Brussels’s milk quotas and, more generally, with the relinquishing of its economic freedom to EU dictates. Houellebecq writes of Aymeric’s fate and the personal and political infidelity responsible for it:
[H]e had simply wanted to be happy and had devoted himself to a rustic dream of durable, high-value production, and to Cécile, but Cécile had turned out to be a fat slut excited by life in London with a high-society pianist; and the European Union had also been a fat slut with that business about milk quotas; he certainly wouldn’t have expected things to end up like this.
Here the temptation arises to read Serotonin as a kind of populist novel of rural revolt against urban technocracy, which manages to predict, if not in content then in spirit, the “Yellow Vests” revolt against President Emmanuel Macron’s pro-EU economic agenda. Houellebecq, however, is too subtle a writer to produce a novel of mere political observation, and Serotonin, whatever its populist flair, is, more significantly, a novel about loss, damnation, and the pitiless indifference of both political and natural processes.
It is also a novel about compassion. How much official pity exists for dairy farmers whose livelihood and identity have run afoul of the global economy? About as much as exists for an unremarkable middle-aged white male who can’t get an erection and whose sentimental failures are no one’s fault but his own. These, truly, are among the least of our brothers, and Houellebecq seems to want to goad us into hating them (in the case of Florent-Claude, two particular incidents are especially effective, though I won’t reveal them) so that we might, in the same stroke, bear witness to our own hypocrisy.
Near the end of the novel, Florent-Claude takes an apartment on Paris’s southern periphery and begins plotting his suicide (the number of suicides in Houellebecq’s work is rivaled only by the number of sex scenes). Unlike other of Houellebecq’s novels, Serotonin has had relatively little to say about religion, but its final lines flash out with the power of revelation, offering something like a moral summary of the individual and social failures that the novel has tracked:
God takes care of us; he thinks of us every minute, and he gives us instructions that are sometimes very precise. Those surges of love that flow into our chests and take our breath away — those illuminations, those ecstasies, inexplicable if we consider our biological nature, our status as simple primates — are extremely clear signs.
And today I understand Christ’s point of view and his repeated horror at the hardening of people’s hearts: all of these things are signs, and they don’t realize it. Must I really, on top of everything, give my life for these wretches? Do I really have to be explicit on that point?
Houellebecq’s overtures to religion are famously hedging — in his previous novel, Submission, the protagonist, François, wonders whether a mystical experience of the Virgin Mary isn’t just a result of his not having eaten the night before. Serotonin’s finale, on the other hand, reads more like a rendering of divine judgment. Florent-Claude has failed to discern moments of banal happiness from prospects of lasting joy, and this failure has damned him. And France, too, Houellebecq suggests, may also be damned, should the country continue to sacrifice its identity to the utopian ambitions of globalism.
Perhaps most provocatively, though, Serotonin challenges its readers to soften their hearts toward those among us who are refused official pity — the sorts of people, dairy farmers, gilets jaunes, and lonely white quadragenarian men included, who seem less likely to evoke compassion in the present political climate. Like all of Houellebecq’s work, Serotonin is, at times, hilarious, sexually graphic, and shockingly irreverent. But it is also a novel of moral seriousness, daring us to increase our compassion in proportion to the seeming loathsomeness of those to whom it is owed.