Translated by Shaun Whiteside
In an interview with the Financial Times in 2016, Michel Houellebecq suggested he still had enough fuel in the tank for ‘one great book. Not two’. He’s never been the kind of writer who tells stories as an end in itself: each novel has had to it the feel of necessity and conviction, and while signature elements recur – forlorn middle-aged males; a preoccupation with sex; a bleak reading of life in Western society – each has deepened and expanded the sustained j’accuse that Houellebecq has been levelling against secular, capitalist modernity since the publication of Extension du domaine de la lutte in 1994.
Which brings us to Serotonin, Houellebecq’s first novel since Submission’s not quite dystopian vision of an Islamised France in 2015. It’s a wry title, naming the neurotransmitter that regulates happiness but is more often invoked in relation to its absence. While modern literature is by and large a gloomy terrain, few novelists, and fewer bestselling ones, have been as committed to describing unhappiness as Houellebecq. No doubt his adeptness at portraying the world depressively accounts in part for the remarkable phenomenon of his success – let’s not forget how rare it is for a novelist of such bold intellectual reach to write books that consistently leap off the shelves; whose new works are greeted across Europe as events.
If Houellebecq’s bleak outlook compels so many readers, it is likely because depression is so endemic to Western societies in the third millennium (‘one millennium too many in the way that boxers have one fight too many’, reckons the narrator of Serotonin) that it might be considered not only a malady of the spirit or a mental illness, but as the reigning ontology of our times. A sociological and polemical novelist, Houellebecq diagnoses his characters’ malaise as a consequence of the decaying social and metaphysical orders into which they have been born. More or less explicitly suffering from depression, these characters confront a brutal, paralysing world that is too cold, too harsh, and too lonely for human habitation. ‘No one in the West will ever be happy again’, reflects a woman in Serotonin, serving as a mouthpiece for Houellebecqian dogma, ‘happiness today is nothing but an old dream, the past conditions for its existence are simply no longer being fulfilled.’
As Serotonin begins, we learn that its forty-six year old narrator, Florent-Claude Labrouste, has been prescribed Captorix, a new antidepressant that his doctor hopes will relieve Labrouste of the all-pervading sadness of his life. If the rest of the novel is any indicator, psychopharmacology still has a long way to go: Labrouste starts out miserable and sinks deeper with each chapter. He shares his expensive apartment in Paris’s sixteenth arrondissiment with his twenty-six-year-old Japanese girlfriend Yuzu, until he discovers videos of her in cartoonishly depraved scenes of gang-banging infidelity. Deeming her a ‘fat slut’ (Yuzu is not the only woman who will be thus labelled in Serotonin – Houellebecq shows no signs of a late-career reconciliation with his feminist critics), he decides to abandon his life by giving up the apartment, quitting his job at the Ministry of Agriculture, and moving into a dismal hotel. Full of regret and ‘dying of sorrow’, he ruminates on memories of the women who once loved him – women whose love, like many of Houellebecq’s men, he ruined or discarded for no clear reason.
While some novelists age in tandem with their characters, Houellebecq, who is now in his sixties, has always trained his gaze on early middle age, the period of life when illusions crumble and the brutal themes that preoccupy him are laid bare. The bitter pill that his characters routinely swallow is the decline in their sexual value in a disenchanted, individualistic, competitive civilisation in thrall to ‘the fascination of youth and beauty’, whose nearest substitute for happiness is sexual pleasure. There are three mentions of ‘virility’ in Serotonin’s first three pages (‘loss of libido and impotence’ limp in on page four), which reanimates the long-felt suspicion that each Houellebecq novel is an instalment in the biography of the author’s penis. A common criticism is that Houellebecq’s fictions objectify women – and they do, we’ll get back to that – but it’s no less true that his men are often identified largely with their dicks. He can be amusingly blunt on the subject: ‘I had no particular ambition for my cock so it was enough that it should be liked, and then I would like it too, that was where I stood with regard to my cock.’
In writing about sexual matters Houellebecq foregoes the need for approval that one already senses hobbling other contemporary writers when they approach the subject, made fearful by a rising demand that art proffer idealised rather than truthful representations of lust and life. His men being dicks, they likewise regard women primarily in terms of body parts. Having abandoned Yuzu and settled into the hotel life, Labrouste reminisces about her charms:
… the best thing about her when I think about it again was her arsehole, the permanent availability of her arsehole, apparently tight but in fact so manageable – I found myself constantly in a situation of free choice between three holes and how many women can you say that about? And at the same time how can you consider them women, those women who don’t offer that?
For Houellebecq there is no real distinction between his characters’ travails and those of ‘the West’, and Labrouste’s waning sex drive – a side-effect of Captorix – is held up to mirror ‘the disappearance of the Western libido’. Of course, we’ve been here before, plenty of times. In this as in other regards, Serotonin fulfils the expectations of a Michel Houellebecq novel so thoroughly that it verges on parody – and instils the feeling that his ‘one great book’, if it exists, continues to gestate. Much of Serotonin reads like it’s been algorithmically generated from a thorough harvesting of the prior Houellebecq data. Again and again we are reminded of past works. When Labrouste complains to his doctor of despair and lassitude, the doctor suggests he employ the services of ‘prostitutes in Thailand’ – a premise out of which Houellebecq once spun an entire novel. And when Labrouste reflects that ‘that’s how a civilisation dies; without worries, without danger or drama and with very little carnage; a civilisation just dies of weariness, of self-disgust’, one cannot but recall that Submission meditated at length on this very idea. From pessimistic slogans like ‘society was a machine for destroying love’, to talk of ‘a fierce struggle based above all on perpetual sexual competition’, Houellebecq leads us in a self-karaoke singalong of his own greatest hits. The impression is of an author, grown complacent from decades of glamorous notoriety, mechanically repeating the lines he once uttered with disturbing violence, the animating rage behind them evaporated. Whereas prior Houellebecq novels were arguments, rhetorically deployed to compel the reader into accepting a certain world view, Serotonin is content to assume that the arguments have already been decided: there is much talk of the ‘unbearable emptiness’ of modern life and the exhaustion of the West, but little of the philosophical depth that brought such distressing force to the author’s original declamations on these matters.
This lack of depth is mirrored in the flimsiness of the novel’s fictional world and its narrator’s motivations. Drifting to Normandy, where he consorts with humiliated farmers who ominously polish their firearms, Labrouste acts not out of any convincing integral momentum, but in order to facilitate the set-pieces that Houellebecq lines up to drive home his points about the ineptitude of the European Union, the simmering ressentiment of rural France, and so on. Houellebecq’s novels reliably contain grotesque and outlandish elements – snuff movies in Atomised; a terrorist attack in Platform; a posthuman earth in The Possibility of An Island – which deliver shocks that distil the novels’ thematic concerns. But when Labrouste’s behaviour by his own admission becomes ‘incomprehensible, shocking and erratic’, the results feel programmatic and superficial.
What is new in Serotonin is the above-mentioned target of Labrouste’s (and, we can assume, Houellebecq’s) resentment: the European Union in general and its agricultural policies in particular. Labrouste’s detestation for bureaucracy and the petty bans that pockmark public life makes for some amusing riffs, as he is repeatedly forced to move out of hotels when they prohibit smoking. He hates Paris – ‘a hell built by human beings at their convenience’ – and, in ‘revenge on the indecent price of rent and service charges’ (and on the ‘eco-friendly bourgeois’ who infest the city), enjoys refusing to recycle. ‘I mightn’t have done much good in my life’, he muses, ‘but at least I contributed to the destruction of the planet.’ The anti-EU stance and scorn for self-flattering urban elites is not uninteresting, and much has already been made of Houellebecq’s by now customary prescience (he had finished writing Serotonin before the gilet jaunes plunged Emmanuel Macron’s government into crisis late last year). The novel’s middle section, depicting armed Normandy farmers at breaking point, is indeed a grim mirror to our historical moment’s mood of volatility and rancour. And yet, it all makes for a somewhat disappointing diminishment of scale when we recall the cataclysmic ambition of Houellebecq’s greatest works.
Something more fundamental than Euroscepticism that has begun to emerge in late-career Houellebecq is the glimmer, if not of religious belief, at least of its possibility. As late as 2008, in Public Enemies, his book of correspondence with Bernard Henri-Levy, Houellebecq was unequivocal in defining himself as ‘fundamentally atheist’. Although Atomised showed sympathy for Catholic morality as a (rapidly dissolving) buffer between the individual and the ever-encroaching rapacity of the free market, that and the other early novels self-consciously continued the Western philosophical project of probing the ramifications of a universe denuded of divine order and metaphysical solace. Houellebecq took up where Pascal, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Camus had left off, with the novel rather than the work of pure philosophical reflection his means of enquiry. ‘How long could Western society continue without religion?’ asked one of Atomised’s emotionally crippled males, but there was no suggestion that the Enlightenment’s demolition work on the pillars of faith might be undone. While publicising Submission, however, Houellebecq admitted that his prior negative certainties around metaphysical questions had deserted him. And indeed there is a sense of logical necessity to Submission, whose narrator converts to Islam for reasons that may be more than purely cynical and pragmatic. Houellebecq’s life’s work has been to drive home the reasons why a materialist, liberal, individualistic society cannot and even should not endure. It was perhaps inevitable that he would begin to imagine that a return to religion – even a previously mocked, alarming religion such as Islam – might be our only hope of climbing out of the civilisational grave he insists we’ve dug for ourselves. Submission left open the question of how much its author really believed in the possibility of resetting the shattered metaphysical foundations of monotheism. But on the question of religion’s utilitarian value in bestowing cohesion on society and meaning on individual lives, it was distinctly favourable. Recently, Houellebecq engaged in a dialogue with Geoffroy Lejeune, a conservative Catholic intellectual, and he concluded with an even more explicit endorsement of religion:
Can the restoration of Catholicism to its former splendour repair our damaged civilisation? Here we are in agreement – it’s much simpler, almost self-evident. The answer is “Yes”.
If he really does believe such restoration is possible, Houellebecq has changed his tune in this as in other matters. In Public Enemies, he countered the claim that he is a reactionary by insisting that, unlike true reactionaries, he does not believe in the possibility of a return to any past state or Golden Age:
… if there is an idea, a single idea that runs through all of my novels, which goes so far as to haunt them, it is the absolute irreversibility of all processes of decay once they have begun. Whether this decline concerns a friendship, a family, a larger social group, or a whole society; in my novels there is no forgiveness, no way back, no second chance: everything that is lost is lost absolutely and for all time.
Perhaps it is nothing more mysterious than the discomfort arising from his world view that now has Houellebecq making of Catholicism an apparent exception to this law of ‘the ineluctable nature of all decay’. Maybe Houellebecq wants to be saved from his own truths – and who could blame him? None of which is to suggest that Serotonin isn’t a characteristically desolate work, depicting a Europe in terminal despair and craving its own disappearance. In its final section, Labrouste withdraws from human contact with an extremism worthy of J.K. Huysmans’ splenetic creation Des Esseintes in À rebours (the narrator of Submission, we recall, was a Huysmans scholar). It’s as bleak as anything Houellebecq has imagined. Yet even here there are intimations of something like faith, or at least the longing for it. Realising he must spend Christmas alone, Labrouste considers staying at a monastery (they are all booked out). And then, in the penultimate paragraph, something happens – it’s more of a suggestion, and leaves us unsure whether it was really there at all – that seems to recast the three-hundred pages that preceded it in a strange, startling new light, with a hint that this story of seemingly ordinary suffering may in truth be something else entirely.