Serotonin: A Novel
by michel houellebecq
farrar, straus and giroux, 320 pages, $27
Europe is old, decrepit, and suffering from fatigue, as though conscious that its life is drawing to a close. Europeans are having fewer children, burdened by shame, guilt, fear. At its root, this is a spiritual malaise, a melancholy of the soul in a time when the soul is scarcely believed in.
Almost everybody seems to feel we are heading for some cliff edge. We may not agree upon what we mean by that, but we sense a catastrophe of some kind—existential, ecological, demographic, or arising from some uncertain bellicosity—is just around the corner. And we sense that, when it comes, this catastrophe will have the mien of willful self-destruction.
The defining characteristic of the present age is the desire to subvert and destroy the institutions, traditions, and beliefs that converged to become Western civilization. This iconoclasm is carried out in the name of freedom but accompanied by an unconscious relinquishing of the life-force. The great mass of Western humanity seems content to abandon the ideas that constituted the heart of its civilization from the beginning.
In a January Harper’s article entitled “Donald Trump is a Good President,” French novelist Michel Houellebecq wrote:
It’s my belief that we in Europe have neither a common language, nor common values, nor common interests, that, in a word, Europe doesn’t exist, and that it will never constitute a people or support a possible democracy (see the etymology of the term), simply because it doesn’t want to constitute a people. In short, Europe is just a dumb idea that has gradually turned into a bad dream, from which we shall eventually wake up.
By “Europe” here Houellebecq clearly means “the E.U.,” but he is also saying something else: A successful civilization does not necessarily equate to a successful democracy or “people.” Europe has been the source of the greatest civilization the world has seen, but that doesn’t guarantee that its far-flung elements can be politically united—and trying to force this to happen can undo everything. This is Houellebecq’s subject, more or less: the strange death of a Europe that never really existed. A civilization dies, says Florent-Claude Labrouste, the protagonist of Houellebecq’s latest novel, Serotonin, “without worries or danger or drama and with very little carnage; a civilisation just dies of weariness, of self-disgust.”
The desires of Houellebecq’s characters—generally menopausal, alienated men—have burst the banks of their humanity. These men do not know what to do with themselves. In contemporary culture, they cannot become victims, are incapable of inciting pity or empathy, and have no one to blame but themselves.
It has been remarked that they always resemble the author himself. They feel real, but they are creatures of the culture more than individuals driven by particular genetic structures, histories, motivations. Mostly they are carried along by the general pathology, walled-in by ennui and lack of expectation. Occasionally, they capitulate to grief brought on by nostalgia for something they barely remember knowing. In their unraveling, these characters make visible the gruesome reality of the world man has made in his determination to become his own deity, although Monsieur Houellebecq might not put it in quite those terms.
Some Christians are hostile to Houellebecq and his works, as his books contain fornication, bestiality, paedophilia, drugginess, and assorted other debaucheries. This is undeniable, but it does not mean that Houellebecq is not on the side of the angels. He is resolutely on the side of human searching and hoping. He tackles great themes—Islam, transhumanism, sexual consumerism, cloning, post-sixties hedonism—but always as a backdrop to his study of the movement of human beings in time and space. He is sometimes misread because his work is the antithesis of political correctness, depicting the world raw and unfiltered.
Houellebecq writes about the disappointment, sadness, loneliness, anguish, terror, boredom, and despair imposed by a culture unfit for human habitation. He exposes the freedom con pedalled since the sixties and defended in the name of progress. He summons up a diseased world, leaving the reader repelled and unsettled, but also relieved that at last the truth is told. He does not raise false hopes, but presents his characters in extremis within the collapsing culture, their humanity no longer capable of extending into the available space. But all the while there is an implicit comparison of an unexpected kind: that something better is possible—something that may once have existed, perhaps a memory deep in the recesses of the reader’s mind.
Part of the process of “enjoying” a novel is this state of speculative comparison—between our own lives and those we are reading about. This can take the form of identification, envy, empathy, or schadenfreude. It may be what makes the novel such a mysterious source of satisfaction—even now, when reality threatens to wash all invention away with a sneer. With most writers, the comparisons are personal; with Houellebecq, they are social in the sense that Arthur Miller talked of all plays being social: They engage a community in a journey that pulls it together in understanding for the duration of that performance.
For his 2011 book The Map and the Territory, Houellebecq created a character called Michel Houellebecq, a writer. The book’s “hero” Jed, a painter, visits the famous novelist to present a portrait he’s painted of him. As Houellebecq prepares a meal, Jed examines the bookshelves and is
surprised by the small number of novels—classics essentially. However, there was an astonishing number of books by social reformers of the nineteenth century: the best known, like Marx, Proudhon, Owen, Carlyle, as well as others whose names meant nothing to him.
Houellebecq does not read as a natural or even comfortable novelist, but as someone who has invaded an increasingly redundant form to say things incapable of being heard otherwise. He does not write recreational yarns, nor book-shaped sedatives. A kind of investigative reporter who reports truths rather than facts, he is a red-pilled Hunter S. Thompson in reverse gear, the chief scribe of the counter-counterculture, the Great Gonzo of Truth-telling, the one prepared to describe the depths of degradation and hopelessness to which libertinism and nihilism have dragged us. His books are documents of an internal forensics of human decline that happen to take the form of stories.
Serotonin is Houellebecq’s eighth novel. It was published in French last January, and in English in September. Florent-Claude, or “Florent,” is an agronomist who lives in Paris and suffers from depression. He has worked for the E.U., for industry, and latterly for the Ministry of Agriculture. He is unmarried but shares an apartment with a much younger Japanese girlfriend, whom he no longer loves nor likes. His doctor has prescribed a new antidepressant, Captorix, which has the effect of inhibiting the synthesis of testosterone and supplanting the sex drive with artificial serotonin. The drug that restrains him from killing himself also kills off the last of his desires.
He pulls off a disappearing act and quits his job, vacating his apartment and relationship and losing himself in the wilds of rural Normandy. There he encounters an old college pal, Aymeric, the heir of a great estate who, surveying the effects of E.U. agri-policies on his family and its legacy of arable land, is at least as depressed as Florent. Here, Houellebecq builds another layer—the destruction of French farming by E.U. policies—as both a metaphor and a mirroring of the destruction of humanity.
Florent’s time in Normandy unfolds as a downward spiral into studied madness: a premonition of the gilet jaunes (Houellebecq’s books tend toward premonition), a very public suicide, the stalking of an old lover, and a scene from a postmodern remake of The Day of the Jackal. Most of the people Florent meets, pursues, and breaks bread with are like himself: tired, broken, fueled by antidepressants, eating and drinking too much, losing the taste for music and other pleasures. The Captorix tablets keep his head above water, but barely. His doctor tells him he has “the sense that you are, very simply, dying of sorrow.”
Serotonin may be about the possibility of happiness or the illusions we hold concerning that possibility. Love was all there was, Florent once believed. Love was everything, a dream in which you could hide away. “The outside world was harsh, merciless towards the weak, and hardly ever kept its promises, and love remained the only thing in which one could still, perhaps, have faith.”
He seeks to win back one—either—of the two women he believes he has loved, whom he “could have made happy.” He contemplates for a while the murder of an innocent in order to retrieve what he has lost. Years back, he might have asked one of those lovers, Camille, to marry him, but the “spirit of the age” objected.
I hadn’t been formatted for such a proposition, it wasn’t part of my software; I was a modern man, and for me, like for all of my contemporaries, a woman’s professional career was something that had to be respected above all else—it was the obvious criterion, it meant overtaking barbarism and leaving the Middle Ages.
A moment of undoubted madness enables him to perceive that what he hopes for is impossible. He realizes that he “wouldn’t manage to alter the course of things, that the mechanism of unhappiness was the strongest of all, that I would never regain Camille again and that we would both die alone, unhappy and alone, each in our own way.”
Happiness today, he observes along the way, “is nothing but an old dream, the past conditions for its existence are simply no longer being fulfilled.” This may be Serotonin’s central meditation: Time has played tricks that lead us to follow things that cannot lead where they once did.
Only a culture rooted in the sacred is capable of sustaining a human person or society over the long run. Houellebecq understands this, although he struggles with the knowledge. Even if he does not quite buy it, it informs his investigations of the human journey to see if there is a point at which the mess man has made on his own doorstep will force human desire onto a different path.
Houellebecq is a vital witness to a time that is, in Flannery O’Connor’s phrase, “Christ-haunted”: Logic, reason, and rationalism insist that the founding story of his civilization is impossible, implausible, and more, but his heart still wants it to be otherwise. Moreover, his society, the society emblemized in Florent, secretly feels the same way, but to no avail. What history confides has been indispensible, modern man’s reason will not allow. Unable to throw itself back into belief, humanity sacrifices the gains that flowed from what has come to seem a great confabulation, the Most Beautiful Lie in History. Europe declines because it cannot admit to being too clever for its own good.
“God is a mediocre scriptwriter,” declares Florent, “that’s the conviction that almost fifty years of life have led me to form, and more generally God is mediocre: the whole of his creation bears the stamp of approximation and failure, when it isn’t meanness pure and simple.”
But later, having condemned himself, as he busily prepares his own end, he is a new man.
God takes care of us; he thinks of us every minute, and he gives us instructions that are sometimes very precise. Those surges of love that flow into our chests and take our breath away—those illuminations, those ecstasies, inexplicable if we consider our biological nature, our status as simple primates—are extremely clear signs.
God’s death is true only in this world; when we can no longer even live, it loses its purchase. Then we may have a chance. Perhaps the reason Europe has recently seemed intent upon self-destruction is that this is the only route back to meaning that its residual instincts know.
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of ten books, and a playwright.