Review: Serotonin – Michel Houellebecq (2019)

Serotonin may well come close to Houellebecq pastiche, but contained within its disdain for current European values is a powerfully useful heresy.

Serotonin, as Boyd Tonkin suggests in the Financial Times, veers close to Houellebecq pastiche.  The protagonist, the style and its bolts from erudition to crudity and pornography are all familiar, and deployed with diminishing returns.  There is also a hanging pointlessness to some episodes – pointless beyond the ennui and anomie that gives the central character his nihilistic seeming drive.

I agree with Tonkin too that the notable topicality of the violent French farmers revolt of the novel, published at the outbreak of the Gilets Jaunes protests, is significant; that ‘Houellebecq’s disdain for the emptiness of modern western life often leaves him spookily ahead of the game’ and with his finger on the real pulse of society.  This underlying pulse has been steady for some time, and beats similarly through Submission and its immediate topicality when published on the day of the Charlie Hebdo shooting (it’s theme the weakness of European values, leaving a deracinated identitarian liberalism unable to resist, and indeed abetting, the Islamification of France).

Houellebecq’s vision is one of a middle aged European social conservative, still ambivalent on the legacy of the 1960s, but sure beneath all else of the value of a European way of life (as perhaps defined by a comfortable late middle-aged white man).    This European social conservatism has not been embraced by the EU, until now – though we wait to see how von der Layen’s focus on a ‘European way of life’ plays out – but, if not embraced, then it should have been more seriously acknowledged. The angry impotence seen here is politically as well as sexually driven, with a ‘neoliberal’ EU and French state as its target.  The sadness running through the book is not just a stirring argument for love as the only purpose in life, and the protagonist’s foolish destruction of his own entry into this state, but also that the ways of life that allowed such happy coupledom in Europe are being progressively destroyed – emphasis here on progressives.

As the story of the protagonist’s career progresses, we can understand the unstable rage/passivity amalgam is bonded by an internalised defeat.  As a result of his powerlessness in the face of the crushing weight of free trade on French farming, he, Florent-Claude Labrouste, has been in retreat from the world for some time.  Early on he reflects on his having had a ’social trajectory without any great verve, but which one the less had allowed me to escape – I hoped once and for all – the physical and even visual contact of the dangerous classes; I was now in my own hell, which I had built to my own taste’.  Having subsequently disappeared from his own life he becomes ‘a middle-aged Western man, sheltered from need for several years, with no relatives or friends, stripped of personal plans and of genuine interests, deeply disappointed by his previous professional life, whose emotional experiences had been variable but had the common feature of coming to an end, essentially deprived of reasons to live and of reasons to die.’ 

From experience too, Labrouste rejects trite and pious assumptions of the goodness of humanity.  A (younger) girlfriend, Camille, training in veterinary science is confronted by the horrors of chicken farming: ‘they lived among the decomposing corpses of their fellows, and spent every second of their brief existence – a year at most – squawking with terror. That was true even in the best- kept poultry farms, and it was the first thing that struck you, that incessant squawking, and the permanent look of panic that the chickens gave you, that look of panic and incomprehension; they didn’t ask for pity, they wouldn’t have been capable of it, but they didn’t understand, they didn’t understand the conditions in which they had been called upon to live.’  

He had inspected such farms before, he ‘knew all of that, but the low moral standards which, like everyone else I was capable of displaying, had allowed me to forget it.’ When Camille asks ‘How could men do that? How could they allow that to happen?  I had nothing to say on the subject, only uninteresting generalisations about human nature’, and pushes further: ‘After all, I’m sure there were doctors with medical degrees in the Nazi camps.  There too it was ultimately a source of banal and far from encouraging contemplation on humanity; I preferred to say nothing.’

On a shallow reading I suppose one can summarise Serotonin, as Johanna Thomas-Corr does in the Observer, as the ‘existential Alan Partridge’-esque rants of a ’catatonically depressed, racist, misogynistic, homophobic narrator’ but it is clearly wrong to suggest that Houellebecq’s ‘is a world without pity, without love, without affection’, as the protagonist is, as she notes, ‘dying of sorrow’ and spends a considerable amount of the novel reflecting on past love and the central role of love in life.  His view may be unpalpable to the constitutively progressive, but it is one in which love is the central value, and the ‘truth’ he is seeking to convey is that, for the characters here, the (European) world is being stripped of love and possibilities for love.

Dismiss them as Partridge-esque if you like, but misunderstanding (and misunderestimating) the ‘deplorables’, and side-lining their grievance through simplistic labelling (everything we are not! – racist, misogynistic, homophobic) has shown the dangerous ignorance at the heart of a complacent Western late liberalism.  The shock tactics may have less impact, but his challenge to the self-defeating, or at least happiness destroying, nature of contemporary European liberalism is potent and only spookily topical for those who daren’t look closely at the assumptions and implications of their own political morality.