Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq. Translated by Shaun Whiteside. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages.
What makes suicide funny? Rarely in real life, if ever, but under the cover of fiction, abstraction, or anonymity, why do we laugh at the sad man who hates himself? Do we, too, wish that he would die?
Each of Michel Houellebecq’s novels has capitalized on a collective discomfort with these questions. His first, translated as Whatever at the height of the grunge era, confirmed that disaffection was alive and well in Paris, if it had ever left. The French title, Extension du Domaine de la Lutte, expresses in one phrase the argument each of Houellebecq’s books has found an inventive way of restaging: the failure of the sexual revolution to overthrow capitalism has commodified human eros, rendering its subjects so many pieces of entrepreneurial meat in a cold, bureaucratized market. Periodic incels, Houellebecq’s protagonists are racist, misogynistic, alcoholic, and depressed—losers obsessed with their own desire, shielded from oblivion by cowardice, laziness, and the demoralizing conveniences of modernity: sex tourism, New Agery, populism, and in his latest novel Serotonin, prescription pharmaceuticals.
This used to be called “existentialism,” and later, “emo,” but at the end of the twenty-first century’s second decade it reads more like cringe. The morose sexual fantasies of a wealthy, middle-aged white man, Houellebecq’s literary specialty, are a hard sell in a post-#MeToo literary market still purging the American tradition David Foster Wallace named “the Great Male Narcissists.” There has long been a transatlantic affinity for “muscular prose” about men at once brooding and horny. Exploited by French modernists from Georges Bataille to Albert Camus, the psychologization of the deplorable modeled by T. S. Eliot in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” has remained a prominent theme in American writing, be it serious-middlebrow (Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School), middlebrow-middlebrow (the New York Times opinion desk), commercial-middlebrow (Todd Phillips’s Joker), or cancelled-middlebrow (Woody Allen, Louis C.K.).
Periodic incels, Houellebecq’s protagonists are racist, misogynistic, alcoholic, and depressed—losers obsessed with their own desire.
For almost three decades, Houellebecq has been among the foremost poets of suffering, which all good Catholics know is mostly self-inflicted. He is also prone to edgelord takes, such as “Donald Trump Is a Good President,” which made the cover of Harper’s last January—an accelerationist argument that unites the alt-right and the dirtbag left in eliciting fear and loathing from the mainstream. More often than not, his jokes land like the famous last words of a newly estranged father. This used to be the terrain of writers and comedians, thumbing their noses at the powers that be, and for many, still is. But what does it mean that our kings have come to resemble, more and more, Houellebecq’s imaginary clowns?
“The man of ressentiment,” Friedrich Nietzsche writes in The Genealogy of Morals,
is neither upright nor naïve nor honest and straightforward with himself. His soul squints; his spirit loves hiding places, secret paths and back doors, everything covert entices him as his world, his security, his refreshment; he understands how to keep silent, how not to forget, how to wait, how to be provisionally self-deprecating and humble.
Houellebecq’s antiheroes, like Nietzsche’s archetype, direct their “view outward instead of back to oneself”: toward “a hostile external world,” against which every action becomes “fundamentally reaction.” Their opinions mimic in extremity and arrogance the anarchist and the anti-Semite, political actors in 1880s Europe whom Nietzsche wrote against, though schools of both ideologies later claimed heir apparency. The man of ressentiment is the foil to Nietzsche’s Übermensch: the underdog, the loser, the nerd, the “cuck.” In Houellebecq’s case, he may be a computer programmer, a biologist, or an agricultural engineer (as was the author, and before him, Alain Robbe-Grillet). He smokes constantly, watches television with the volume turned down, and indulges in pornographic fantasies with such frequent and intense precision that you sometimes wonder if he’s ever had sex.
Every culture loves fucking, but few so proudly as the French, or with looser lips. Houellebecq is a self-consciously late-stage descendent of the Marquis de Sade, Voltairean in his defense of free speech, or, as he describes it in Public Enemies, a book of correspondence with “philosopher” Bernard-Henri Lévy published in 2008,
Nihilist, reactionary, cynic, racist, shameless misogynist: to lump me in with the rather unsavory family of “right-wing anarchists” would be to give me too much credit; basically, I’m just a redneck. An unremarkable author with no style, I achieved literary notoriety some years ago as a result of an uncharacteristic error in judgment by critics who had lost the plot. Happily, my heavy-handed provocations have since fallen from favor.
More than a decade later, Houellebecq was awarded the Légion d’honneur by Emmanuel Macron, four years after the publication of Submission, a speculative satire of an Islamicized French Republic. In advance of its publication, National Front (since rebranded as National Rally) President Marine Le Pen described the novel as “a fiction that could one day become a reality”; Charlie Hebdo celebrated the book’s appearance by depicting Houellebecq on a cover delivered to newsstands mere hours before Saïd and Chérif Kouachi massacred twelve people in the paper’s offices. That not many of Submission’s “predictions” had come to fruition was irrelevant to the book’s supposed prescience, which has been extended to Serotonin as well, a violent protest of Norman farmers against a crash in dairy prices seeming to anticipate the gilets jaunes movement of 2018, even if Houellebecq’s historical inspiration predates both events. Neither novel is the savvy critique of the European Union that some journalists have described, but rather the prosaic diarrhea of a disillusioned baby boomer drunk on red wine.
Punk was invented by boomers, who Richard Hell named the “Blank Generation,” referring in part to an ironic detachment that had taken the place of what appeared, in the 1960s, to be genuine political commitment: “I can take it or leave it each time.” For the French, this meant the legacy of May 1968, which for Houellebecq represents a precious farce, the historical target of his exasperated bile. He counts among his fans Iggy Pop, who recorded an album of chansons in homage to The Possibility of an Island, Houellebecq’s most earnest attempt at science fiction in the mold of compatriot Jules Verne: approaching the retirement home, the polymorphous chaos of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” has softened into “I Want to Go to the Beach.” The same could be said of Houellebecq’s latest, whose narrative hinges on a problem more unique among his protagonists than his readers. Prescribed Captorix, “a small, white, scored oval tablet,” in the effort of increasing his serotonin levels to stave off depression, Florent-Claude Labrouste, age forty-six, can’t get it up.
Setting aside the presumed relatability of erectile dysfunction, which sometime Parisian Ernest Hemingway bet on in The Sun Also Rises, the surrounding circumstances of Labrouste’s biography push the limits of verisimilitude. Left a small fortune by parents who took the Romeo and Juliet exeunt in the wake of a cancer diagnosis, Florent lives with Yuzu, a Japanese girlfriend twenty years his junior, near the top of one of Paris’s ugliest luxury buildings, the couple’s hatred for each other as mutual and, possibly, life-threatening as the love shared between his mother and father. At a gas station in Spain, Florent helps two attractive young women inflate the tires of their Volkswagen Beetle, a metaphor from which Houellebecq milks innuendo for the novel’s duration. Once home from a road trip meticulously routed through hotels that have not yet banned smoking in their rooms—a rare privilege for a seasoned addict these days, the novelist insists—Florent decides to disappear. He quits his consulting job at the Ministry of Agriculture and slips out in the morning while his millennial girlfriend is still asleep. Navigating a Mercedes 4×4 through the ruins of his sexual past, Florent plays John Cusack in Houellebecq’s bleak remake of High Fidelity: failing to be aroused by Claire, a promising actress turned wino, in the twentieth arrondissement; revisiting Caen, in Normandy, where he first met Camille, the true love he lost to callous neglect. After passively witnessing acts of pedophilia, inciting an anti-globalist revolution, and plotting to assassinate Camille’s school-age son so as to profit from the insecurities of a grieving mother, Florent returns to the Hôtel Mercure where his journey began and, he is distressed to learn, where smoking will soon be prohibited.
Serotonin is not the first time Houellebecq has dramatized the pain of solitude, the struggle of mental illness, or the ineffable urge to escape: writing again to Lévy, he noted that his favorite authors (Baudelaire, Lovecraft, Musset, Nerval) all died at Florent’s age, forty-six, and that when Houellebecq turned forty-seven,
I was still a few meters from the brow of the hill and I had a fair idea of what the long downhill slope that is the second half of life would be like: the successive humiliations of old age and then death. The idea occurred to me more than once, in brief, insistent thoughts, that nothing was forcing me to live out this second half; that I had a perfect right to play hooky.
He writes that he was saved by a “desire to be liked,” and the reception of The Possibility of an Island, which confirmed Houellebecq’s international reputation when it was published in the United States in 2006, must have filled the void to some extent. But Florent is no artist, and his descent more closely parallels that of Wertheimer, the titular character of Thomas Bernhard’s 1983 novel, The Loser, who kills himself at age fifty-one, having finally lived as long as Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, with whom he studied at conservatory. Gould’s unequaled virtuosity convinces the Austrian to stop playing for good, but Florent has no external nemesis, except perhaps for Houellebecq, who allows him to narrate his own story and incriminate himself. The Houellebecqian narrator pads his novels with references to literary giants of the nineteenth century—J. K. Huysmans, Alphonse de Lamartine—but his sensibility and means of expression are relics of the twentieth, when Marcel Proust and Thomas Mann “might respectively have represented the peak of French and German civilization—that is to say, the most brilliant, the most refined cultures of their time—but they were at the mercy of, and ready to prostrate themselves before, any wet young pussy or any valiantly upright cock.” That the geniuses’ preferences were “undecided” makes no difference to Houellebecq or his mouthpiece, for whom “Proust would have crushed on Rihanna; these two authors, the crowns of their respective literary cultures, were not, to put it another way, honourable men.”
Neither novel is the savvy critique of the European Union that some journalists have described, but rather the prosaic diarrhea of a disillusioned baby boomer drunk on red wine.
Nor is Florent. His reaction to a video of a “middle-aged Dobermann” penetrating Yuzu “with the vigour normally associated with its breed” is one of mild disgust, “particularly on behalf of the dogs—and at the same time I couldn’t conceal the fact that for a Japanese girl sleeping with a Westerner wasn’t far off [from] copulating with an animal.” When he is discovered watching child pornography made by a German camped in a neighboring bungalow in Canville-la-Rocque, his first instinct is to run away screaming, “I’m not going to report you!,” which to his perverse credit, he never does. And when gentleman farmer Aymeric, his only friend, blows out his own brains on TV in an act of personal and political desperation, the news is met with “nausea and disbelief,” reminding Florent of a long-ago acid comedown: “no one had died, there was just the matter of a girl who couldn’t remember if she’d agreed to be fucked in the arse; well, young people’s problems.”
In spite or because of Houllebecq’s professed aspiration to likability, he refuses Serotonin’s reader the satisfaction of beholding Florent as he ends his life, or even knowing that he will: finishing in signature style, without resolution, Houellebecq invites his audience to stare with him down the precipice of the unknown, to ask ourselves what is funny, what is not, what it is that we despise, and what that says about ourselves. Were his words uttered in the context of politics or public life, where people were once expected to pretend, at least, to believe what they say, it is unclear whether Houellebecq would be able to continue selling the number of books that he does, but insulated by the conventions of fiction and the assertion of a higher calling—literature—his platform has risen in prominence. Uxoricide and collaborationism have not erased the memory or importance of Louis Althusser or Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and though Lorin Stein translated Submission prior to his disgraceful resignation from The Paris Review, Houellebecq’s crimes are restricted to the literary for now. The idea of a free society requires that the unapologetic asshole have the right to exist, and—more troublingly—to speak, granting each individual the liberty to do with that what we please: empathize, pity, argue, or ignore. Houellebecq wants us to laugh, but as the contempt he glorifies proliferates beyond the pages of his novels and the borders of France, it becomes easier to conclude, in the words of another European troll past his prime, that joke isn’t funny anymore.