Sure enough, despite its title, his latest novel is another spectacularly pessimistic meditation on the simultaneous decline of a male narrator and of western civilisation in general. As ever, too, it’s not a book likely to appeal to the increasing number of readers (and reviewers) who, like Victorian critics, require their fiction to be virtuous and edifying... If you have not read Houellebecq before — and don’t insist on virtuous literature — the thrill of heresy that the novel offers could well be enough, with plenty of admittedly rather bracing material to enjoy or argue with. (Although you may do better to start with his earlier novels Atomised, Submission or best, and most thrillingly heretical of all, Platform.) If you have, however, you may find Serotonin a little disappointing; the novel feels like a loose, even rambling anthology of his familiar concerns — where the only real surprise is that Islam and hippies are spared their usual kicking.
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... 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.
Houellebecq unveils a French society in flux. As politicians offer no leadership in resisting damaging EU directives, certain interest groups are forced to take matters into their own hands. The novel concludes by acknowledging that suffering is a necessary part of life and that love, though impossible to hold on to, is the only goal worth striving for. Serotonin will undoubtedly be another huge commercial success, but it lacks the intensity of some of Houellebecq’s earlier novels, which is not to say it is anything less than compelling for all that.
Houellebecq is, in the final instance, just interesting enough a novelist to make it work. Whether or not you agree with his views, he remains an astute commentator on the contemporary political fracas. Just as Platform (2001) and Submission (2015) were disturbingly prescient about Islamist terrorism, Serotonin – originally published in France back in January – managed to predict the blockades of the gilets jaunes several months before the movement appeared on France’s streets. Florent-Claude is an impotent man in a country full of them, seeking out any means to express their stymied agency. If a showdown involving a rocket launcher seems implausible, there is no doubting Houellebecq was onto something.
Whatever one thinks of his views, Houellebecq must be commended for his acute rendering of the intrinsically melancholic nature of chauvinism. Houellebecq’s portrait of the reactionary id is all the more convincing for being riddled with contradictions, echoing the intellectual incoherence that has characterised Europe’s nativist surge. There is a telling moment when Florent-Claude, having railed against the dogmas of free trade and globalisation, advises Aymeric to go wife-shopping in the developing world: ‘Take a Moldovan girl, or a Cameroonian or a Malagasy girl, a Laotian even … They’ll be up and about at five in the morning to do the milking … then they’ll wake you up with a blow-job, and breakfast will be ready as well.’ France for the French, then; but we can still be cosmopolitans when it suits us.
Perhaps for Houellebecq’s male admirers, there is something redemptive about someone performing their worst selves on the page, revelling in that dark part of their souls that they delete from their internet caches. I won’t deny that there is something impressive about his commitment to the role, nor that the persona can be extremely funny – like a sort of existential Alan Partridge. It is telling that he reserves his real tantrums for environmentalists, the EU, the state of SNCF trains or the trend for casting mixed-race women. But I struggled to detect any bravery. As a writer, Houellebecq is as sloppy and cowardly as his narrator, vaguely gesturing towards ideas without ever seeing them through. You can almost hear him wondering how he could spice things up... Serotonin soon becomes banal and predictable, a novel whose universality you immediately begin to question... This refusal to deal with the complexity of human experience makes Serotonin neither useful to the brain nor the soul.
If all the talk of pills and porn and urban anomie sounds a little 1990s, that’s because it is, or was. Serotonin revives the tropes of his first novel, Whatever, which was published in France 25 years ago. Other common ingredients include the Ministry of Agriculture, train journeys from Paris to Normandy and back, riot police, name-dropping Pascal, and encounters with dairy farmers. But Whatever was half the length of Serotonin and many times as eventful – richer in its satire, more vivid in its details. That shift is conscious. With the exception of Submission, in this century Houellebecq’s fiction has become less interested in how people become exhausted than in exhaustion as a world-view in itself. And though you can hardly blame a novelist for following an impulse, you can no more blame his readership for a feeling of decreasing excitement about where he may head next.
The backdrop of Michel Houellebecq’s novel is by now well established. In this — his eighth — the bleak, essentially nihilistic nature of life is once again only relieved by equally nihilistic humour and sex. From the opening of Serotonin it is clear that we are in safe Houellebecqian hands. About the new anti-depressant that the narrator has been prescribed: ‘The most undesirable side effects most frequently observed in the use of Captorix were nausea, loss of libido and impotence. I have never suffered from nausea.’... Houellebecq writes with such facility and humour that it can look easy. Yet how many other novelists can make you moan, laugh and keep reading like he does? He deserves his reputation as the novelist who most understands our age, most reviles it, and may well come to represent it best.
However limited Houellebecq’s creative imagination, his novels have a journalistic knack of chiming with events, and there is a Frexity feel to much of Serotonin. “Europe” is seen as cruel and cultureless in its landscapes and its bureaucracy; the words “gilets jaunes” do not appear, but their grievances are evoked. But even at his most provocative (xenophobic, even racist), Houellebecq lacks the passion for satire. He is a nihilist without an agenda for reform, the guy with the sandwich board who tells you the end is nigh. Then shrugs.
He has bitten the hands that caress him for so long that his teeth now merely tickle. Houellebecq loves classic rock — he’s not always a scoffer. In Serotonin, his narrator waxes lyrical about an old bootleg recording of Deep Purple’s “Child in Time”, with its “most beautiful break in the history of rock”. We can no longer feel the shock of such a band in its shattering prime. Maybe the same goes for Houellebecq. Heavy-metal bombshells dwindle into drive-time favourites... He still loves to tease and goad — not always with much point. In Normandy, a witnessed episode of paedophilia goes nowhere and does nothing. Still, his caustic ironies entertain, with Labrouste an oddly companionable grouch. Throughout, Whiteside nimbly channels that signature blend of humdrum blokeishness and name-dropping literary polish that marks the Houellebecq voice.
To some extent one reads Houellebecq precisely for his willingness to risk being loathed. The danger, amplified with every success, is that the self-shaming becomes a manner, a formula. Shock is a tricky commodity for an author to trade in over the long term, and it has to be said that the first third of his new novel, Serotonin, reads like an object lesson in the law of diminishing returns...Houellebecq has been credited with foreseeing the gilets jaunes movement with this novel, especially in the dramatic scenes of armed confrontation that bring this middle section to its unnerving climax. Deservedly so, I think, if only for his conjuring of the blackly pessimistic psychology that distinguishes these kinds of revolt from other, more high-minded uprisings. Does this redeem the crassness of those earlier scenes? Not really: crass is crass, even if it turns out to be strategic. And instead of sensibly ending on its high note, the book meanders on through a set of ridiculous plot twists in Labrouste’s personal life, petering out on a note of morbid self-pity.
It is revelatory how much French critics praised the book. They clearly regarded Houellebecq's implicit denunciation of the French establishment, French society and the EU as utterly accurate. If your French is up to it, do read this remarkable novel – even though parts require a strong stomach – because Houellebecq is a remarkable stylist. If not, let's hope the translation does him justice.