Book review: Sérotonine by Michel Houellebecq

Sérotonine - Michel Houellebecq
*****


There's no question that the major publishing event of the new French literary season is the new book by Michel Houellebecq, the now aging enfant terrible of the French literary establishment. Immediately upon publication (4th January in France - it's not available in English translation until September), it attracted considerable press attention even though Houellebecq himself - usually always willing to provide some provocative headlines - was uncharacteristically silent this time. Sérotonine it was said, had predicted the civil unrest that recently manifested on the streets in the form of the gilets jaunes, the yellow vests, as if French civil unrest was something new and unpredictable.

It's true however that Houellebecq has always had his finger on the pulse of French and modern western society, monitoring its irregular heartbeat, waiting perhaps for it to finally just give up and die. Houellebecq's pessimistic view of the fundamental nature of humanity, his ability to identify the cracks and weaknesses in the flawed society we have constructed and his recognition of how quickly the whole framework of civilisation can collapse into anarchy and violence, mark him out as a true successor to J.G. Ballard. He certainly noted the growing unease and tensions arising between Islamic fundamentalism and decadent western culture viewed in the form of sex tourism in Platform (2001), offering a remarkably prescient view of the kind of global terrorism that has become much more prevalent in the world today.

Often however Houellebecq's vision is limited by his own personal frustrations and obsessions, his growing isolation and disillusionment, limited also by the sexual fantasies that litter his books and by a generally vitriolic and cynical outlook on modern society. It's not necessarily that this view is unfounded, but The Possibility of an Island (my last attempt to keep up with Houellebecq's increasingly cynical output) had little new to offer other than an even bleaker and more pessimistic vision of the future. Sérotonine doesn't really stake out any new ground either, but rather than wandering through a post-apocalyptic planet, this time the author's targets are a little more defined in the novel's journey through a post-society France.

In Sérotonine we have the familiar lonely, chain-smoking, depressed pill-popping narrator jaded with life, reflecting back on his sexual exploits, his unsatisfactory career as a civil servant, who is coming to the conclusion that his existence has been pointless. Florent-Claude Labrouste, aged 46, comes from a wealthy upper middle-class background and has had plenty of opportunities (sexual and career), but he is fed up with his job in the Department of Agriculture, and his two-year relationship with a beautiful 26 year-old Japanese cultural ambassador Yuzu has reached terminal stage. Having hacked her computer and seen some videos of her involved in orgies, Florent is finally determined to finish with her. It's not so much the betrayal, the multiple partners or the extreme acts that take place in the videos, but bringing animals into it is just a step too far. Rather than create a scene and break up or throw her out the window of their luxury apartment, he decides that a more prudent and legal course would be simply to disappear.

Even better Florent realises that in a city like Paris he doesn't have to go too far to get lost; he can just move to a district less frequented by his type of people. His meagre affairs easily concluded by emails and the sum of his possessions amounting to not much more than a laptop, he checks into a Mercure hotel near the Place d'Italie in the 13th Arrondissement (one of the few that permit smoking in their rooms) and reflects on what to do next. Evidently for a Houellebecq character that reflection involves reminiscences of former partners with extraordinarily tireless and imaginative sexual appetites, but he's also proud of his own little gestures of defiance against political correctness and the fact that he may never have done anything good with his life, but at least by driving around in a 4x4 diesel and sabotaging his recycling bins he will at least have "contributed to the destruction of the planet".

If that were entirely the tone and the content of Sérotonine it wouldn't be that much different from previous Houellebecq books, and to a large extent there's a sense of the author playing up to his notoriety and enjoying the sense of provocation with a little bit of a smirk as he writes it. Contrary to the initial press reaction there's no great philosophical insights or prophetic visions in the novel's apparent world-weary gloom, but Houellebecq does manage to find fault with and express a comprehensive disdain for various aspects of French history, politics, law, industry, architecture and agriculture, popular and high-brow culture, and the near impossibility of avoiding modern lifestyle traps. It's a reflection on the source of everything that is now wrong with France today and how it got there, and it's not multiculturalism, although that has certainly highlighted the deeper faultlines in modern society. It's not just the narrator either, but society itself is depressed and suicidal, neurotic, impotent, dried-up and dead inside.

What Houellebecq most successfully manages to do in his latest novel is cut through the social conventions, social niceties and political correctness and uses his strengths in these areas to get right back to the basics. As is often the case, getting down to human basics in Houellebecq mostly means sex, but this time with antidepressants inhibiting his libido, his narrator surprisingly also starts to appreciate the value of love and friendship as he revisits significant people from his past. With even those baser impulses repressed, he begins to recognise that he might have missed a genuine chance for true happiness with at least one significant young woman in his past.

It's a simple enough idea then to tie personal revelations with our social failings, but amidst all the cynicism this brings an unexpectedly tender and even romantic note to Sérotonine, and it's often even highly amusing. There's still some humanity left in Houellebecq, perhaps a great deal more than you might think. Lest you feel that he is mellowing in his old age or that the anti-depressants are actually effective however, Houellebecq's view of love is one that turns out to be (almost?) irretrievably twisted by his life experience and he still has the capacity to shock and push buttons.

Sérotonine may not be a heavy-weight philosophical analysis of the state of France and the world today, it may not even be the best self-analysis of why the author maintains a nihilistic sense of utter disillusionment, and it may even feel a little bit like self-parody at times, but there's an undeniable element of truth in what the book tells us about the state of the world we are living in today and what it is doing to us. Michel Houellebecq's observations in Sérotonine are perceptive, well articulated, entirely free of self-pity or self-aggrandisement (although some may interpret that final paragraph differently) as the author permits his narrator's mood-stabilising dose of serotonin to suppress his dark thoughts, his cynicism, his ego and his libido and begin to see the world and other people as they really are. It's not a pretty sight.

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