BY ANDREW MOODY
French enfant terrible Michel Houellebecq’s seventh novel Serotonin follows similar themes to his other bestsellers. Narrator Florent is an unattractive, nihilistic, middle aged white man who decides one day to leave his younger Japanese girlfriend and opt out of the pressures of Parisian life, spurred on by a TV show about people leaving their past lives and the bestiality videos his girlfriend has kept of herself. Using his inheritance to survive, along with an antidepressant called Captorix, he revisits scenes of his past love affairs, and his suicidal best friend Aymeric, a farmer being gradually squeezed out of financial security by the government’s support of EU policies.
Written with typical black humour which masks a deep sorrow at the malaise and spiritual decline of the West, Houellebecq chose not to do any press for the novel. This is partly due to its release date coinciding with the author’s awarding of the Legion de Honneur, France’s highest literary prize, and the protests of the yellow shirts, which Houellebecq eerily foresees in the book. Two of his other novels had been similarly prescient: 2001’s Platform which anticipated the Bali bombings, and 2015’s Submission, about France submitting to Sharia Law: Houellebecq was featured on the front cover of Charlie Hebdo the day it was stormed by Islamist terrorists.
Capturing yet another moment in France’s history, the novel was an instant bestseller and hailed by critics as yet another masterpiece. For me the novel takes it’s time to get going, presumably as it’s narrated by a deeply depressed man who at one point allows a paedophile to get away with child sex abuse, and another when he contemplates killing the five year old son of the love of his life in order to swoop in and recapture her affection.
Love for men is therefore an end, an accomplishment, and not, as for women, a beginning, a birth; that’s what you need to bear in mind.
It’s obvious to see where the success of the novel rests: there is something compelling and cathartic about an unstable narrator veering slowly to madness, but as is typical of Houellebecq, Serotonin’s insanity rises from an unbearable sadness: romance and nihilism are here indistinguishable from one another, like the majority of his books it suffices as a suicide note, the decline and fall of the European project which Houellebecq sees as inevitable. Body and state too are intertwined, like the author, Florent is a chainsmoker on which he comments:
Nicotine is a perfect drug, a simple, hard drug that brings no joy, defined entirely by a lack, and by the cessation of that lack.
Houellebecq has lamented his position of great repute and wealth, making him part of the global elite he has despised and brutally satirised his entire career. I profiled him for CSM last year:
Having hit so many literary home runs, his celebrity and money have enabled him to indulge cinematic and musical endeavours, even an awkward attempt at becoming a middle-aged rapper thanks to his Eminem obsession. He is a fan of Donald Trump and even though the British get on his nerves, thought Brexit showed “tremendous courage”.
90,000 copies of Serotonin were sold in the first three days of release, which is as if, (as the New Statesman reflected) Julian Barnes was suddenly propelled to the status of JK Rowling. The novel itself is hardly his best, but there is something compulsive to it, following the socially and emotionally doomed narrator and his stark comments on a France beyond politics, simply divided into the metropolitan winners and the rural losers. As anti-EU propaganda, the book is splendid, as a work of literary art it seems hastily thrown together and a rehash of his former work. If you are a fan of Houellebecq, chances are you’ve already read it, if you haven’t been introduced to this deeply polarizing author I suggest starting with his debut Whatever or his nihilistic masterpiece Atomized.
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