Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel acquired an air of urgency when its publication in France, at the beginning of this year, coincided with the emergence of the anti-metropolitan agitators known as les gilets jaunes. Once again, the reasoning went, this unorthodox writer had seen what all the cloistered liberals were missing, in this case the revolutionary-populist leanings of a disenfranchised white working class.
In reality, the words on the page were being clouded by Houellebecq’s existing novelist-seer reputation. Historic victories in the art of prescience – the jihadi terrorism in the pre-9/11 Platform, for example – conspire to create the illusion of fresh ones, while obscuring his real strengths and failings as a writer. So his last novel, Submission, was praised for foreseeing the events at the offices of Charlie Hebdo – Houellebecq’s ogreish features had appeared in caricature on the edition that appeared the week of the attack – even though the novel itself was a reply, at once sardonic and streaming with elegant paradox, to clichés of Western enlightenment and Eastern intolerance. Similarly, in Serotonin, provincial unrest is not the subject of a big statement, merely the occasion for an interlude of carnage that registers some impact but, like everything in this tiresome novel, leaves virtually no trace.
The story is narrated from an unspecified future point but unfolds in something like the present day – France in the later part of this decade, under a Macron administration. Florent-Claude is 46, a well-paid contractor for the Ministry of Agriculture living in a soulless tower with his airhead Japanese girlfriend. One day, having rejected the idea of suicide, he decides simply to walk away from his bourgeois existence. His new life, largely defined as not being the old one, is spent popping a “new generation antidepressant” called Captorix, reminiscing about relationships he messed up, and making a tour of northern France that includes a visit to Aymeric, a contemporary of his from agronomy college, a depressive cuckold who lives in a dilapidated chateau and fights for the rights of local dairy farmers.
When Serotonin appeared in France, Houellebecq was 62, the same age that Philip Roth was when he brought out his own story of a middle-aged man in a rut, Sabbath’s Theater. But Serotonin offers us a very different style of desiccation and a different kind of onanistic anti-hero. In Roth’s work, the waning of certain appetites – for romantic love, friendship and success – yields an increase in others, or at least one other, but for Florent-Claude, rendered impotent by Captorix, sex cannot be relied upon to incarnate the life-force. And where Mickey Sabbath thrives on his disdain, prompting a volcanic fluency in his creator, Florent-Claude emits only a sigh, at most a thin trickle of bile. If Sabbath shakes his fist, Florent-Claude can barely flap his palm in irritation. Everything he encounters apart from cable television and mini-supermarkets is simply a bit rubbish. And so Houellebecq has the challenge of animating a character whose attitude to life is neither grateful nor angry – with unsurprisingly torpid results.
It’s fitting that Serotonin has been pegged, however fancifully, as Houellebecq’s gilets jaunes novel since the pages involving Aymeric are easily the best thing here. Florent-Claude shares the farmers’ antipathy to free trade and is impressed with their debating skills, while feeling something resembling moral outrage that being in the right is not enough to get you properly heard. A lunchtime protest at a motorway intersection, to which Aymeric brings an assault rifle, even provides the opportunity for a high-stakes dramatic set-piece in a book otherwise devoted to rumination and reminiscence.
At times, Serotonin can seem like a purely rhetorical exercise, a sort of homage to the varieties of comic juxtaposition: high and low, seedy and grand, blasé and horrific. Florent-Claude says that a couple’s decision to settle in the commune of Bagnoles-de-l’Orne “would remain a mystery to me until the very end”. Describing the stupidity of “deep throat” fellatio, he complains that the woman’s tongue is “ipso facto” deprived of movement – an example of incongruous high-flown diction that might have had more impact if we hadn’t recently heard about “the Weltanschauung” of hotel receptionists. A gleeful chapter about the prospect of Florent-Claude killing his girlfriend ends with an offhand reference to the “moral element of murder”. Grand statements peter out with acts of deflation (“I found myself on my own again, more alone than I had ever been; well, I had hummus”) while cynical bathos becomes a kind of tic: “Her mother had yielded her little soul to God – or more probably to the void.” But a style of narration that hopes to be constantly confounding is more or less doomed to failure.
Houellebecq being Houellebecq, the book also comes pitted with dinky riffs, though most of these efforts land in the realm of pseudo-nuance – the almost-but-not-quite-clever. Recalling a restaurant in the afternoon, Florent-Claude describes “that commercially toneless but socially incompressible space which, in Europe, separates lunch from dinner”. Regarding a return visit to Paris, he argues that living in a tower block between Porte de Choisy and the Porte d’Ivry is to live “nowhere, completely nowhere, or let’s say in the immediate vicinity of nowhere”. And even when he manages a sharper observation – pointing out for instance that pornography has always been at “the forefront” of technological change despite being the area of human activity with least room for innovation – it feels like an idle victory, well within his powers.
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.
Michel Houellebecq Translated by Shaun Whiteside William
Heinemann, 320pp, £20
This article appears in the 25 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great disgrace