Book review: Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq

Since “Atomised”, Michel Houellebecq has fit in at mainstream literature as a kind of prophet of contemporary affairs. “Prescient”, “The voice of the discontent”, “alarming” are some adjectives employed to describe the French author.

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Michel Houellebecq

Recently, he would have foreseen the French yellow-vest movement. He was so important to the extent of living under armed protection during the terrorist attacks against Charlie Hebdo’s newsroom. He saw a Muslim uprising in France that frightened all. He saw the collapse of the European Union. Did he really see all this coming?

Early digests of his latest book, Serotonin, seemed to confirm this image. Amid the wave of right-wing, populist-fueled outrage, his latest was hailed as “an indictment of the EU.

Houellebecq’s name receives the little oxygen it does, at least from international readers, due to the overambition of literary advertising. This has to be said. And indeed, his 2018 book does not live up to the hype.

First, because Serotonin (William Heinemann) is more of a mild, half-whispered, and angry rant authored by a poorly-constructed spectator. Secondly, because Houellebecq’s prose has become very modest. The narrator targets very specific and geographically limited issues, as we shall see.

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Serotonin tells the story of Florent-Claude, or Florent, a man faced with hard decisions in his post-retirement life.

Florent guides the reader on a journey. As he travels across Europe and France, he revisits his life from different perspectives: His lovers, friends, and cities.

By the time he stops working, this white, middle-aged man is fed up with the middle-class, middle-brow Paris he grew used with.

Expectedly, Florent has seen no purpose in years as a civil servant. As he feels the unease of a slowing life, the reader is invited to meditate with him on a variety of contemporary issues.

Florent is eloquent about cultural exchange as he is about globalisation; he discusses social cohesion in modern France; he resents the rentier Parisian society, but he pities free trade. Unsurprisingly, he is sceptic about the ecological crisis (he worked at France’s environmental affairs department). Elsewhere, he talks about women, but he is also angered at food and the sad at the invasion from developing countries and its citizens. In sum, he is the newsreader from hell.

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This kind of random social commentary is probably the better-known of Houellebecq’s ticks, on which he depends a lot to write Serotonin. So much so that it does not matter what are the pressing issues, the narrator faces them with no pretence at being deep.

The so-called Houellebecqan predictions –  the grim, menacing view of how the world is turning – are nowhere to be found. Many of which got him on the cover of Charlie Hebdo magazine with a crystal ball – but his sight is nonetheless a testimonial of the extreme boredom of his characters. Contrariwise, the author spends very little time performing anatomy in crisis society as many of his critics would wish him to do.

The stronger moments in Serotonin happen when Houellebecq conjures up micro with macro issues, present and futuristic visions. Florent’s real problem being his devastating solitude. His dislocation is beautifully conveyed through the enduring monotony that transpires from small actions and movements around town. Silences are produced involuntarily and painfully.

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Dairy farmers protesting in Belgium against EU regulations. A scene described in Serotonin. Credit: Flickr: Teemu Mantymen

Whether by paying a series of unfruitful visits to old friends, now reactionary farmers; or by staying in cheap hotels with no apparent purpose; or even calling up old girlfriends, now frustrated women; Florent is bound to fail at this attempt to sooth this irremediable loneliness.

Every single turn of his desperately bored life encompasses the worsening of an ideal. The solution, as we have guessed earlier in the text, is not possible to find.

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Houellebecq’s Failed Ideal is painstakingly revisited as Florent repeats the mantra of decadence in (French) society. For instance, the current picture always ends up contrasted with how things used to work, who used to belong or not and where; who used to be the master and who is now the slave.

A bad day has him ranting at the European Union, the French people, the agriculture lobby, bad architecture, at his existence. World affairs have zero impact in his life in a realistic, objective matter, and that is absolutely fine in literature, but words do not do the job of locating these issues to outside tedium.

As if he were a social media loner, Florent’s narrative develops like the arguments were in a test-tube waiting to be released as serialised tweets. The news passes straight by him, but he wants to show fluency about it. He sees enemies who don’t know him. He predicts the worst knowing he will never live up to watch it.

Of course, Florent’s violent and reactionary imaginary taps into the contemporary wave of discontents and political orphans. Virtually, he is nailing their deepest fears: Immigration, race-mixing, and the so feared social blending of “invaders”.

While trying to address these major issues (or if we choose to see his prose as such) the reconstruction of the present lacks proper depth in Serotonin. The author’s ability to psychologically project this kind of hyper-conscious narrator has worked better in past.

In Submission, for example, it was the private religious faith of the President that slowly becomes compulsory in France. In the Goncourt-winning “The map and the territory”, the reader knows that the artist has lost the plot through a well-designed web of relationships and pre-conditions. In Serotonin, it is not clear what Florent has to lose or to gain, his thought reaches us in a deceptive and circular fashion.

The narrator is depressed and concedes to taking captorix, a new, powerful anti-depressant. Sadly, Houellebecq does not explore this part at length. He chooses to connect with it only as an allegory of contemporaneity. Florent becomes more introspective after this event. All we know is about doses and his hatred of scientific advances.

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In any case, the degree to which this book is a tale of depression is much arguable. Florent’s sadness seems to be applicable only to the disappointments that are predictable and to people that are alien to his very narrow sense of the world.

His frustration appears, for instance, as he learns that his female friends are turning their 50s; disdain is felt for some girls in Spain who do not correspond to his fantasies; ill-judged assessments appears every time the shine of decadent, petit-bourgeois Paris is taken over by foreigners.

Other than that, his thoughts are ordinary. As he stereotypically attacks his Japanese girlfriend, metaphors of bestiality and cold-blooded women meet a conservative orientation that dictates Florent’s sense of male responsibility:

I paid the rent and the charges, deposited into Yuzu’s monthly allowances, which she’d have asked me for ‘subside the housekeeping (for the essentials, to order sushis.)

Not that these dramas are unworthy It is the writing that does not deliver.

Even his arguable “prescience” of today’s political dramas relates to experiences lived between the protagonist and a number of individuals that are far from the world of ordinary people. His unsuccessful interactions always happen to be with foreigners or those who display non-French, non-European attitudes. All very relatable to real dilemmas, but not far from any news report.

It shows up whenever Florent aims to find a “dirty Brazilian” to satisfy last-minute sex urges; it is about the Argentinians that will destroy France’s milk industry.

This ongoing cry of the white male, the wolf that howls at half moon also happens in SubmissionAs soon as the Muslim candidate “deceptively” reaches the power in 2022’s France, everyone else becomes vocal and afraid. But there, the powerful thesis behind compensates and distracts from the characters.

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If one wants to have a post-colonial take from Serotonin, one might want to see that foreign servants are not only outright scapegoats. Actually, they are aliens that are shown as oblivious beings and beyond any emotional bonding.

These semi-characters are like sad dark-skinned figures that frequently appear in ancient tapestry. Bystanders under the command of their white master. They are not innocents, though, Houellebecq puts them as shadows of the unnamed great evil that is about to take all the Europeans.

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View from an apartment in Paris. Credit: Flickr/Alainalele

If we wished to work on a more positive note about foreignness in Houellebq, that could be in line with Gregoire Chamayou’s recent title, La Societé Ingouvernable (Fabrique), that sees the rise of authoritarian liberalism as a direct consequence of Macron’s government, the radicalisation of eco-warriors, and the fragmentation of political parties is the dead-end of democracy.

The problem being not the entrance of foreigners. but the easy stereotypes at play. In a recent interview, Houellebecq seemed to confirm that his targets are far less ambitious than all the decadence drama that the media have painted every time his release a new book.

Serotonin ends banal and fraught. Either because of bourgeois self-centredness, the fear of immigrants, the hypocrisy in the face of political correctness, or even just because all these remain untold stories.

Florent leaves us suddenly, precisely when the magic of anti-depressants could have made a better job in keeping him with the readers. Leaning more towards collective martyrdom in one’s head, the book works as an indictment of no one.

Boredom and pessimistic views of society and social change are highly writable topics nowadays. Nevertheless, very few authors dare to be unsellable. From those who can sell, almost no one gets such a proper space to define what one does toward recent events which the media cover extensively.)

Houellebecq has broken all these tacit rules of literature. It is a pity that a sense of narrowness comes limiting his possibilities. By overlapping power categories that have define modern media, the author only repeats itself and dangerouly flirt with ordinariness. It is just to look around the corner.