Books

The Houellebecqian Moment

Michel Houellebecq at the 2014 Venice Film Festival (Tony Gentile/Reuters)
The French provocateur’s latest novel, Serotonin, comes as his longstanding concerns have begun to manifest in the liberal societies he so harshly criticizes.

We are living in the imagination of Michel Houellebecq. The bête noire of French literature has spent decades deploring the erosion of Western mores that he believes resulted from the sexual revolution of the 1960s. His last novel, Submission, revolved around the election of a theocratic Muslim to the French presidency. Released on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it was on one hand reviled as an Islamophobic tirade and, on the other, heralded as a prophetic portrayal of the decline of Europe. His latest, Serotonin (deftly translated into English by Shaun Whiteside), resumes the prophetic style, but his predictions seem less fantastical now.

Indeed, the rise of populism in the U.S. and Europe might as well have been choreographed by Houellebecq. The election of Donald Trump, Britain’s vote to withdraw from the European Union, and the rise of populist parties across Europe all constitute a repudiation of the ideology Houellebecq has railed against since the 1990s. And he is not displeased to see the “liberal world order” crumbling, as he explained in an essay for Harper’s earlier this year titled “Donald Trump Is a Good President.”

Serotonin’s narrator and protagonist, Florent-Claude Labrouste, is a 46-year-old agronomist working for France’s Ministry of Agriculture. Florent is rendered impotent both professionally, as French agriculture’s slow death reaches its denouement thanks to international competition, and sexually, as he begins taking a “next-generation” antidepressant called Captorix. Much as Houellebecq found his own short-lived career as an agricultural scientist intolerably boring, Florent can’t stand his job. “Dying of sorrow,” as his psychiatrist puts it, our narrator abandons his bureaucratic post in Paris and embarks on a dark night of the soul. But unlike Saint John of the Cross, he stands no chance of deliverance.

Florent holes up in the Hotel Mercure, which contains one of Paris’s last smoking rooms — its existence a rare rebuke of the city’s new corporate norms. He assiduously avoids human contact and smokes heroic numbers of cigarettes. A 21st-century update of Hans Castorp from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Florent stamps out his sense of impending doom with television programs, musing that “if [Blaise] Pascal had been aware of the SFR [cable] box he might have sung a different tune.”

At Christmas — a particularly difficult time for solitary men, according to Florent’s psychiatrist — he decamps to Normandy, where he hopes to elude increasing suicidal thoughts. There, he comes face-to-face with the farmers whose livelihoods he has been charged with administrating in Paris. They are literally dying off — taking their own lives at a remarkable rate. Thanks to E.U. policies that have caused the price of dairy to plummet, Norman agriculture has become a shell of its former self. The French administrative state shoulders most of the blame, its trade negotiators “a strange, vain species whose record of defeat showed no signs of abating.”

In a flourish of Houellebecqian prophesy, the Norman farmers carry out a condensed, slightly more violent version of the gilets jaunes protests that roiled the country after French president Emmanuel Macron’s 2018 attempt to raise fuel-tax rates. A group of armed protesters barricades a roadway through which agricultural imports are supposed to enter France. Florent accepts responsibility for betraying his compatriots in his capacity as a bureaucrat, but his guilt manifests more as ennui than as agony.

“The indifference that I showed towards the milk producers of Calvados and La Manche,” Florent tells us, mirrored “the more fundamental indifference that I would go on to develop towards my own fate.” His failure is a microcosm of the death wish of a society that no longer believes in itself. But Serotonin is not a call to arms; it is an unconditional surrender. In response to what would otherwise be a rousing depiction of the difficulties of France’s working class, our narrator says “f*** it.” France isn’t worth fighting for, and neither is Florent.

The novel’s hero, Aymeric d’Harcourt-Olonde, whose aristocratic lineage bequeaths him vast swathes of farmland in Normandy, is a foil to Florent, insofar as he feels he has something to fight for. Aymeric stages the farmers’ rebellion not as an act of Marxist class solidarity but as a defense of the ancien régime. He seems to believe that the pre-revolutionary order, for all its shortcomings, shielded its inhabitants from the vicissitudes of the market. Eschewing genetic modification and factory farming in favor of traditional techniques, he embodies a noblesse oblige erased by meritocracy. But resistance is futile, his death demonstrates. We are victims of the forces of history.

Against this backdrop of societal calamity, Florent’s personal life comprises a trilogy of failed romances. These relationships provide him brief spells of happiness, islands of joy in an otherwise bleak reality, but each of them ends because of his infidelity. He abandons the women he loves, partially because of his inability to resist the temptations of freedom and partially because he does not want to stand in the way of their freedom. Reflecting on why he did not propose to Camille, his truest love, Florent explains, “I was a modern man, and for me, like for all of my contemporaries, a professional career was something that had to be respected above all else.” The exigencies of contemporary life render lasting relationships impossible in Houellebecq’s universe.

Serotonin is unmistakably pessimistic, but it is not nihilistic — a charge often leveled at Houellebecq. Underlying the novel’s depressive tone is the possibility of something better. Florent is obsessed with leading a fulfilling life. That he fails is not a result of the world’s emptiness but of his personal fallenness. Houellebecq, though he is an avowed atheist, conveys an essentially Catholic view of human nature centered around the impossibility of earthly perfection due to original sin.

The grotesquerie Houellebecq is famous for pervades Serotonin. Including episodes of bestiality and pedophilia, the author even ups the ante this time around. But unlike in, say, The Elementary Particles, the vulgarity serves no overarching purpose. In a book depicting the self-castration of Western civilization — the elimination of its élan vital — the extra helping of libertine sexuality seems out of place. The narrative style also falls flat at times: Florent “breaks the fourth wall” constantly throughout the book, addressing the reader directly to no apparent end.

But Houellebecq is still Houellebecq, and the marriage of incisive social criticism with sardonic wit throughout the book more than makes up for its minor defects, even if it doesn’t quite resonate as much as his early work. Though the British critic Boyd Tonkin is right to point out that Serotonin often comes off like a greatest-hits record, clinging to the motifs established in Houellebecq’s six previous novels, those who enjoy the author’s deadpan narration will not be disappointed.

What’s more, Houellebecq has refined his style, developing richer plot points and keener social commentary. Florent is arguably the most solitary of Houellebecq’s protagonists, but Serotonin contains less navel-gazing than Houellebecq’s previous works, its realism closer to Flaubert than to Céline. And its set-pieces — the gunfight between farmers and security officials, the stretch in which Florent contemplates murdering a toddler with a Steyr Mannlicher — are superior to any in his previous works.

The times have also changed, of course. Society has begun to catch up to Houellebecq’s long-standing beefs with the sexual revolution, and whereas his invectives against neoliberalism seemed out of touch in the heady atmosphere of the end-of-history 1990s, they are now more apt than ever.

In Serotonin, we are in a hell of our own, which we have built to our own taste.

Editor’s Note: This article has been emended since its initial publication.

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