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.