In Michel Houellebecq’s ‘Serotonin,’ the Provocative Beat Goes On (and On)

In Michel Houellebecq’s ‘Serotonin,’ the Provocative Beat Goes On (and On)

The new Michel Houellebecq novel, “Serotonin,” is an exhausted and exhausting book. It makes you wonder if he has played out his string as a fiction writer.

The narrator is Florent-Claude Labrouste, a French agricultural engineer (Houellebecq once held a similar job) who feels he is “dying of sadness.” Florent-Claude quits his position, vanishes from his obligations and embarks on a road trip he calls “a mini farewell ceremony for my libido.”

Like Jake Barnes, the hero of “The Sun Also Rises,” Florent-Claude has been emasculated; not by war but by anti-depressants. In late middle age, he will visit his old lovers. About his once-valorous but now failing sexual organ, he says: “I wanted to see, once again, all the women who had honored it, who had loved it in their way.” Perhaps he will reassert this flagpole of his existence. Perhaps he will see who salutes.

Solipsistic, sex-obsessed and apathetic, Florent-Claude is an archetypal Houellebecq (pronounced WELL-beck) male. This writer’s characters are, in their way, moral beacons for our era. In nearly any situation, one can ask “What would a Houellebecq man do?” and perform the opposite. It is enjoyable, and useful, to have a collective anti-mensch.

Like nearly every Houellebecq novel, “Serotonin” should be stamped on its spine with a tiny skull and crossbones, like you used to see on bottles of poison, to keep away the devout, the unsuspecting and the pure of heart. His fiction picks up topics like prostitution, sexism, pedophilia, pornography, racism, torture and sex tourism as if they were cans of diet soda. He turns them over to observe them coolly, neutrally and often comically from all sides. He triggers intense responses.

It’s strange that the word “morality” keeps coming up when one is talking about this laureate of decadent ennui. (People who read Houellebecq really like talking about Houellebecq.) The historian and essayist Tony Judt once declared that “moral seriousness in public life is like pornography; hard to define but you know it when you see it.”

When you begin to read a Houellebecq novel, you intuit his moral seriousness. It may not be your morality. There is the consistent sense that this nihilistic writer is drawing from a deep well; his voice is uniquely present on the page. He’s well-read, conversant with politics, philosophy and economics. He wears his learning lightly. Like the Devil in “Paradise Lost,” he gets, in this wary literary climate, all the good lines. Few can be printed here.

Houellebecq’s last novel, “Submission” (2015), arrived in France like gasoline drizzled over a lit match. It depicted an Islamist takeover of France’s institutions, and it was published on the day of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, when Muslim extremists slaughtered the staff of a satirical magazine that had lampooned their religion.

That novel started intense debates, and a copy of the book was useful to have in these arguments. You could toss it at your adversary and impede their progress for a moment or two, and thus make your escape.

“Serotonin” seems on beat with the news as well. One of the people Florent-Claude visits is an old friend, a dairy farmer in distress, who helps organize a violent revolt. These scenes echo last year’s populist Yellow Vests demonstrations for economic justice in France.

“Submission,” in terms of its plot, felt like a vise slowly tightening. “Serotonin” is comparatively quite slack. Like bleach-burned sheets, it seems thin and worn. Someone has been in this motel room all night, strewing scurrilities.

Credit…Philippe Matsas

This is a Houellebecq novel, so the smoking and drinking will be intimately described. The damage of living will occur as if in fast-forward.

On the first page, Florent-Claude writes about waking up: “The relief that comes from the first puff is immediate, startlingly violent. Nicotine is a perfect drug, a simple, hard drug that brings no joy, defined entirely by a lack, and by the cessation of that lack.” He disables the smoke detectors in the rooms he enters.

Champagne, whiskey, kirsch, eau de vie, beer, cognac, wines white and red — the bottles keep coming. The narrator is not elderly but he knows he is getting there. He writes: “Alcohol is very important for the elderly, it’s almost all they’ve got left.”

Food has become increasingly central in Houellebecq’s fiction, as a dismal if sometimes enjoyable substitute for the Western libido. One young woman, in Florent-Claude’s eyes, looks “like an advertisement for Gouda.”

A more typical comment on sex in “Serotonin” is this Bob Guccione-meets-Bill McKibben one: “All men want fresh, eco-friendly girls who are keen on threesomes.”

McKibben would blanch at this novel. Florent-Claude despises the greener-than-thou bourgeoisie. He tells us: “I mightn’t have done much good in my life, but at least I contributed to the destruction of the planet — and I systematically sabotaged the selective recycling system put in place by the residents’ association by chucking empty wine bottles in the bin meant for paper.”

Social isolation is among the great themes in Houellebecq’s work, and “Serotonin” strikes its best and deepest chords on this topic. “Like all cities,” he writes, “Paris was made to generate loneliness.”

Florent-Claude feels lonely and suicidal around the holidays. He debates trying to cheer himself up by consuming a raw seafood platter, but the idea of doing so alone depresses him further. “Having a seafood platter on your own is scraping the barrel — even Françoise Sagan couldn’t have described that, it’s too dreadful for words.”

He does visit his old lovers. The results are dire. You wish these women, like ladybugs, had wings inside their shells so they could split them open and fly away.

Dire too is the intentionally and sluggishly provocative scene in which Florent-Claude confronts a pedophile but does not turn him in to the authorities. The author will welcome your outrage and wear it like a nose stud.

Houellebecq arrives in your life “waving genitals and manuscripts,” to borrow a phrase from “Howl.” Don’t feed his characters. They will keep coming around.

Houellebecq’s great trick is managing to smuggle so much life into his novels, even into minor ones like “Serotonin,” while his characters’ hearts can seem, like Damien Hirst’s shark in its formaldehyde, to marinate in brine.

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