Michel Houellebecq’s new novel is the story of a middle-aged man who had his chance at love and missed it, twice. There is no cure for his despair, neither sex nor consumer goods, not even the antidepressant prescribed to boost the neurotransmitter referred to in the title, Serotonin. He is resolved to disappear, but not before embarking on a journey to make his final farewells. His doctor tells him that the remarkably high level of cortisol he is secreting suggests he is dying of sorrow. The way Houellebecq sees it, so is France.
In its essence, Serotonin is an updated version of the Henry James novella about a man who believes that some future event in his life lies waiting for him like a “Beast in the Jungle.” Instead of marrying the woman in love with him, he protects her by keeping her at a distance, only to find at the end of his life that the catastrophic occurrence he feared has indeed come to pass—he wasted his life waiting for it.
But with Houellebecq there is always a broader canvas, a bigger picture. His reputation as a presciently topical writer ensures his books reach a wide audience even as it tends to obscure his literary gifts.
His previous novel, Submission, an account of France under Islamic law in the not-too-distant future, was published the same day as the Islamist terror attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The magazine’s cover that week featured a cartoon of Houellebecq, headlined “The Predictions of Wizard Houellebecq.” Houellebecq fans say the release of his 2001 novel, Platform, featuring an Islamist terror attack on a sex-tourism hotel in Thailand, presaged September 11.
The Farmers’ Revolt
Serotonin’s timely hook is globalism and its discontents. Houellebecq’s protagonist, Florent-Claude Labrouste, works at the Ministry of Agriculture, where he catalogues the inability or unwillingness of French officials to defend the interests of French workers against the European Union. Accordingly, long before the publication of the American edition, in November, the book was already part of the debate over national sovereignty, populism, immigration, and other matters shaping up throughout what is called, perhaps anachronistically, the West.
Houellebecq enjoys generating controversy—in 2001 he was taken to court for inciting religious and racial hatred when he said that Islam was the “most stupid religion”— but he seems to have a real stake in such matters. Like Labrouste, Houellebecq studied agronomy in college. Though he moved to Ireland to take advantage of a tax exemption granted to artists, and lived there for more than a decade, he returned to France to live again in his own language and sides with the nation-state, especially if it means lining up against those on the other side.
Houellebecq wrote in Harper’s last year that “free-market liberals” are “as fanatical, in their way, as communists,” and told Valeurs Actuelles that he was “ready to vote for anyone as long as he proposes leaving the European Union.” The Atlantic wrote of Serotonin that it “might as well have a jacket blurb from Steve Bannon.”
His previous novel, an account of France under Islamic law, was published the same day as the Islamist terror attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Indeed, in the Harper’s piece, Houellebecq provocatively called Bannon’s former boss “one of the best American presidents I’ve ever seen.” In particular, he favors his position on trade. “President Trump was elected to safeguard the interests of American workers; he’s safeguarding the interests of American workers. During the past fifty years in France, one would have wished to come upon this sort of attitude more often.”
A central episode in Serotonin is a farmers’ revolt, anticipating the populist “yellow vest” movement. Where the gilets jaunes began as a protest against fuel taxes, Labrouste’s friend, a fallen French aristocrat named Aymeric d’Harcourt-Olonde, persuades his Normandy neighbors to take up arms to defend the national dairy industry. They enjoy a short-lived triumph after turning around trucks bringing Irish and Brazilian milk to French consumers.
And yet the cause, as Labrouste knows from experience, is hopeless. E.U. regulations will continue to reduce the number of French farmers, and there will be no measures implemented to protect those who till the earth to produce the food and drink for which France is famous.
“The ideological pressure is too great,” says Labrouste. Everything, he adds later in the book, is rigged “towards the triumph of free trade, towards the race for higher productivity.” And yet Aymeric has little left to lose. He’s had to sell off parcels of the family estate but still can’t make ends meet and his wife ran off to London with his two young daughters to live with a pianist.
Rather than take an immigrant bride, as Labrouste suggests, Aymeric drinks himself numb. It could not be otherwise, as Labrouste recognizes. He envies his aristocratic friend’s rootedness in French soil and history. Labrouste unintentionally shames him when he finds the farmer, a man who “dealt with adult cows, big mammals,” despondent on New Year’s Eve, trying to reach his daughters on Skype.
A Novel That Sings Like a Poem
It is a strikingly intimate novel, more noticeably so in the framework of a book with big and relevant ideas. But this is the elementary structure of all Houellebecq’s novels, where historical eruptions and anomalies define the larger shapes and coarser textures of human relations. What keeps Houellebecq’s work from degenerating into a kind of ponderous late-night college-dorm-room debate—No, no, it is not Descartes but Kant who is the father of Tinder!—is irony, his sense of humor, and in particular his relationship to the novel.
A friend of Houllebecq’s, the journalist and professor Sylvain Bourmeau, told me that the writer considers the novel a literary form inferior to poetry. He’s published books of poems, but what he appears to regard as his greatest literary achievement is to make a novel sing like a poem.
“When he finished his novel The Possibility of an Island,” said Bourmeau, “he was in a state of rare happiness. He had the feeling that he realized something important, to make poetry triumph in a novel.”
The Possibility of an Island ends with a clone, living thousands of years in the future, deciding to leave his solitary encampment and look for whatever it is that his human ancestors had called life. It’s one of the most moving passages in contemporary literature, a poem in prose about the re-discovery of longing.
There is poetry in Serotonin, too, the poetry of failure. One is the failure engendered by forces out of one’s control. Character is not always destiny because some things are insurmountable for the individual. The other failure is the inability to see what is possible, even when it shakes you by the shoulders. Aymeric’s failure is of the first kind, and Labrouste’s is of the second.
A Glimmer of Hope
For Houellebecq, who was born in 1958 (or possibly 1956), French history appears to be divided into two phases: pre–May 1968, and after, when the idealism of the French student movement curdled into the solipsism that the intelligentsia marketed to the masses as liberation. The soixante-huitards were not free, only deracinated.
It’s perhaps too facile to attribute the often cruel depictions of women in his novels to the contempt in which he seems to hold his mother. His 1999 novel Elementary Particles features a hippie mother like his own who leaves the protagonist to be raised by his grandmother, as Houellebecq’s mother did. Houellebecq openly tallies the costs incurred by his mother’s new age ethos.
Most of the sex scenes in Houellebecq’s novels that critics rightly describe as pornographic are anything but titillating. Typically, they’re more like grotesque scenarios of penance demanded for an unnamed sin presumably even more depraved. Houellebecq gives the torture device another turn in Serotonin when Labrouste breaks into his girlfriend’s computer and discovers videos of her engaging in group sex and bestiality.
It seems that for Houellebecq, a menagerie of genitalia and orifices is what remains of a society that’s burned everything to the ground without even understanding the gods it’s toppled. Once you de-mythologize—or deconstruct—the stories that people tell themselves about their loyalties, responsibilities, and affections, there is little left but a clever animal capable of rationalizing the worst crimes it can imagine.
But there has to be more, even now. Houllebecq’s central theme throughout his novels is longing. The novelist provides a glimmer of hope in a scene describing the death of Labrouste’s parents, the book’s center of gravity. After his father is told he has a brain tumor, his mother, in perfect health, orders pills so that husband and wife can take their lives together, on their 40th wedding anniversary.
“It was easy to tell by their positions on the bed that they had wanted to hold hands until the end,” their son recounts, “but they had suffered from convulsions in their death throes, and their hands had parted.”
For Houellebecq, a menagerie of genitalia and orifices is what remains of a society that’s burned everything to the ground without even understanding the gods it’s toppled.
Labrouste is not only incapable of such passion, he inadvertently parodies it when his girlfriend, Camille, sees him on a Paris street hand in hand with his mistress, whom he has just slept with.
His betrayal of Kate, the one other woman who really loved him, simply amounted to his failure to return her love. “For that I deserve death, and even more serious punishments,” says Labrouste. “I will end my life unhappy, cantankerous and alone, and I will have deserved it.”
It is neither May ’68, nor the E.U., nor even the surplus of available sexual partners that distracted Labrouste from the attachments that give life meaning. “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.” He just wasn’t listening.
Lee Smith is a columnist at Tablet and the author of The Plot Against the President