by Adem Berbic
Michel Houellebecq, Groupe Flammarion, 2019
The opening pages of Serotonin, the latest novel by Michel Houellebecq, feel slightly like a roll-call of
the author’s best-known narrative modes. Our protagonist begins by describing his mundane
morning routine, introducing himself by way of a neurotic rant about why he hates his own first
name. This is followed by an apparently scientific explanation of the pharmacology of a fictional
antidepressant, and then by the first of many instances of lecherous desire denied. Mundanity,
neurosis, pseudo-objectivity and male lust: taken together, these elements paint a surprisingly good
picture of the author’s work, or at least the popular conception of it. But if it appears that we are on
familiar ground with Serotonin, this does not make it any easier to talk about Michel Houellebecq,
France’s biggest literary export.
For Houellebecq’s views align him with France’s populist right: he is anti-immigration, avowedly Islamophobic (in an interview with the Guardian: “probably, yes, but the word phobia means fear rather than hatred”), pro-Trump, anti-EU – the latter being the focus of Serotonin, whose English translation is due to be published in September. But Houellebecq is always careful and self-aware about what he says and writes; he never appeals to some fictionalised in-group, because he knows the only thing holding it together is everyone outside of it. Houellebecq’s France may be ‘under siege from Islam and the EU’, but as Serotonin makes extremely clear, that doesn’t mean it’s not a fractured state, stuck in an anaemic war with itself, with no ‘authentic’ group of Français de souche set to claim the spoils.
Take Houellebecq’s recent article in Harper’s, entitled ‘Donald Trump is a Good President’. In the opening sentence, the President is called ‘an appalling clown’. Trump’s ‘pretty repulsive’ character is framed as a ‘necessary ordeal’ to achieve a protectionist trade policy and disengagement from international conflict; perhaps surprisingly, Obama gets equal praise for his reluctance to intervene in the Middle East. The article is written in a terse, logical, quietly assertive style that sweeps you from an overview of America’s standing in the world to a defence of protectionism to a roadmap of the post-Trump global order, reminiscent of the speculative sci-fi in Atomised or The Possibility of an Island: ‘all this will take place within one human lifetime.’
There is plenty to object to there, but Houellebecq covers his bases. He lays out his values and the scope of his argument; where bigotry figures into it, he wears it on his sleeve, practically with a shrug of his shoulders, as if to demonstrate that his line of reasoning still stands. And there is no populist drum-beating in sight: an apparent appraisal of conservative Christianity, the closest the article comes to defining an idealised Western society, comes with the caveat that marital infidelity and ‘a minimal level of hypocrisy’ are still necessary for life to go on.
The fact is that Houellebecq is arrestingly, annoyingly, alarmingly intelligent. Above all, he is master
of hiding this intelligence, whether behind asinine protagonists or proclamations of bigotry, of
making you think you are smarter than him when you read his work. You hold out for a point to
agree on or an opening for constructive engagement, some chance to not just disagree with him but
to trounce his argument – after all, that is the enlightened approach. But, actually, he is the smartest
person in the room.
You would think as much from Houellebecq’s trophy cabinet: he was awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, in 2010, and received the Legion d’honneur earlier this year – the latter was given to him by Emmanuel Macron, with whom Houellebecq maintains a strange arms-length friendship. Perhaps this is a dangerous line for an intelligentsia under threat from everything Houellebecq seems to espouse, both for them and for the other groups he rails against. But Houellebecq does not lend himself to easy dismissal. He has married hard-right thought to left-wing cynicism and self-loathing: an irresistible combination, and one that has paved the way to his status as an establishment enfant terrible.
But Houellebecq’s self-criticism isn’t in bad faith. When his novels turn on themselves, it is not to
sneak reactionary talking points through with irony, à la ‘ironic’ fascism, but to problematise his own
argument. In 2015’s Submission, a Muslim party comes to power in France and implements Sharia
law: the plot could have been dredged up from a BNP rally. But the Muslim party comes to power
through mundane, constitutional means, with the support of mainstream French politicians; in any
case, the events are largely in the background of the protagonist’s equally mundane life. This is the
focus of Submission, much more so than the politics: the modern Western man, and by extension his
society, as aimless, pathetic and ready to submit (at the end of the book, the narrator is looking
forward to his conversion to Islam, which will ensure a well-paid job and several young wives under
the new government).
But Houellebecq refuses to invoke the fascist trope of a ‘golden era’ which modern France has fallen
from, sarcastically raising Islam as a way for the country to attain that mythic glory and cohesion.
The book’s Muslim party has more competence, integrity and a stronger vision than any of their
French rivals; Houellebecq suggests that Islamism shares enough values with the far right to be its
best chance at enacting its goals. It’s a brilliant sleight of hand, one that pulls the rug out from under
the reader’s assumptions about the book and sets them the uncomfortable task of trying to separate
Houellebecq’s perceptive, ugly truths out from the uglier assumptions they are built on.
That Submission was published on the morning of the Charlie Hebdo attacks suggests an unpleasant,
unfortunate prescience, but this is hardly the first time that Houellebecq has captured and
subverted the public mood. His 2001 novel Platform followed a French civil servant who sets up a
sex tourism service (one of Houellebecq’s career-long motifs) in Thailand; his decadent faux-idyll is
burst by an Islamist terror attack, seemingly predicting the 2002 Bali bombings. Even earlier than
this, Houellebecq’s debut novel Whatever pre-empted the incel movement, although its resident
proto-incel is roundly mocked and criticised.
In Serotonin, the hot topic is the EU and the plight of le ras de bol, France’s long-suffering rural
population; indeed, Houellebecq has been getting column space for having apparently predicted the
gilets jaunes movement. The link between those street protests and the one in the book is tenuous,
but it’s still a testament to how well Houellebecq understands contemporary society and what ails it.
He handles topical issues with enough distance and care that you forget their topicality; his sketches
of Western society feel like the real thing taken outside itself, magnified and clarified (Time on
Submission: ‘Houellebecq’s restraint on the page, though, his schematic logic and bland refusal to
indulge panic, seems somehow realer than real life’). Houellebecq has spoken of his respect for Balzac, calling him ‘an essential witness of his era’. Like Balzac, Houellebecq has managed to capture the seemingly uncapturable mood of a new century, so much so that reading his recreations of modern life is jarring, ‘realer than real’. As alienated and alienating as his narrators and protagonists are, it is hard not to be pulled into their view of the world, into its slow rhythm and small disappointments and sordid inner voice.
What helps this, in Serotonin, is that there is no simplistic polemical through-line. Houellebecq very clearly cares about the issues raised in the book, and there are plenty of attacks on the EU here – as well as an affecting, unsettling portrait of its effects on rural France. But the author’s own position is constantly foregrounded: just as Houellebecq has stated he is too rich to vote for Le Pen himself, his narrator’s distance from le ras de bol is emphasised throughout the book. Flaurent-Claude Labrouste is a self-admitted bourgeois Parisian, formerly part of the agricultural bureaucracy responsible for rural France’s decline, depressed for personal rather than economic reasons. Houellebecq plays his cards carefully here: Labrouste is vicious about his own life and his social strata. ‘I hated Paris, it was infested with environmentally-conscious bourgeois and it disgusted me. I was probably bourgeois myself, but I didn’t care about the environment, I drove a four-by-four diesel – I hadn’t done much good in my life, but at least I was helping destroy the planet.’ Houellebecq’s prescience is evident here: long before environmentally-minded fuel taxes became a flashpoint for the gilets jaunes, he was receptive to the impact of environmental regulations on France’s working class. Houellebecq has mentioned wanting to write a novel on the ultra-rich, because he feels they ‘have become a central subject’: he is acutely aware of which groups and issues dominate our society’s conception of itself.
In any case, just as Submission is really about the decaying aimlessness of French society, Serotonin is really about Labrouste’s bourgeois ennui – the title refers to the antidepressants he is prescribed partway through the text. They have little actual effect on the plot, apart from giving him an excuse for his lack of interest during an ill-fated sexual encounter, but Labrouste’s whole life has a typically Houellebecqian formlessness: he is on autopilot even when he decides to abandon his girlfriend, disappear from his job and make a clean break with his life. Houellebecq’s invariably depressed, male and middle-aged protagonists often have some central obsession – sex for Bruno, Huysmans for François – but Labrouste only has a constant, detached disappointment with his own life, an acute sense of who and what could have been. As is often the case in Houellebecq, the writing is caustic enough that it’s hard to distinguish the genuinely sentimental notes from the sarcasm, but this mostly works to the book’s favour: the tone is an uneasy mix of self-pity and self-loathing; when any emotion more profound than disgust or disappointment appears, it feels like the prose doesn’t trust itself with it. Happiness is certainly not impossible in Houellebecq’s work, but it is second to a very relatable, perhaps ‘Houellebecqian’ melancholy. France Culture recently discussed the paradox of the adjective ‘Houellebecqian’: it suggests a tone and worldview that feel utterly familiar, yet utterly unique to Michel Houellebecq.
The great achievement of Serotonin, and of Houellebecq’s work in general, is its documentation of and response to his era. It is evident in his various uses of form: the detached, post-human sci-fi of Atomised and The Possibility of an Island at the turn of the millennium; the metatextual play of 2010’s The Map and the Territory, a meditation on representing reality in art that turns into a police procedural when the character ‘Michel Houellebecq’ is brutally murdered; the brutal satire of Submission at the outset of the current wave of populism; and now, a relatively straightforward approach to personal and national issues. Perhaps, when preparing this novel, Houellebecq realised that more distance and more caricature would be the wrong approach to the current climate. Instead, he returns to the oft-forgotten heart of the issue, individual experience, depicting how one man comes to interact with various headline issues and how society’s conception of itself trickles into the lives of its members. It’s similar to how Houellebecq’s books are full of locations that are ubiquitous, but so instantly forgettable as to barely exist: hotels and motels, unremarkable flats and restaurants (plus very, very many sex resorts). Perhaps Labrouste’s problem is that he is unable to delude and distract himself, unable to hold on to his long-burnt out dreams; he does occasionally fantasise about women that are unavailable to him, as in the opening pages of the novel, but even then, he is bitterly self-aware.
This sort of perspective runs the risk of being obnoxious, but the key factor is Houellebecq’s sublime non-style. Each sentence has the right balance of sincerity and sarcasm, each paragraph the right number of careful observations. Unfortunately, the translations are only serviceable here. The rhythmic prose tends to become flat and fragmented in English, largely because Houellebecq’s winding sentences and ambiguous emotion are so dependent on the neutrality of French and the flexibility of its grammar. Take the original opening of Submission: ‘Pendant toutes les années de ma triste jeunesse, Huysmans demeura pour moi un compagnon, un ami fidèle; jamais je n’éprouvai de doute, jamais je ne fus tenté d’abandonner, ni de m'orienter vers un autre sujet.’ Neither the faux-poetic connotations of ‘triste jeunesse’, nor the delicate flow of the following clauses are quite present in the English rendering: ‘Through all the years of my sad youth Huysmans remained a companion, a faithful friend; never once did I doubt him, never once was I tempted to drop him or take up another subject.’ The translation gets the self-deprecating melancholy across, but it’s clunkier, to say the least; Houellebecq’s writing is simply too tailored to the intricacies of French to allow easy translation into English. It remains to be seen whether the English version of Serotonin will just miss out on the odd nuance of tone, or whether its attempt at rewriting Houellebecq will verge on the wrong kind of self-parody.
But even if the subtleties of his writing are confined to the original French, the wider effect survives in translation. As an essential witness, Houellebecq does not ‘describe things as they really are’; rather, he inverts some collective notion of how it really is, burrows into its cracks and biases, to expose the ordinary, the mundane, the small scale of everything. Happiness and love are described with an incredible modestly: they are a fleeting, perhaps ignorant refuge from the wider world, invariably soured by human error, as if his characters cannot help but lapse into the real, brutal nature of things. ‘Was I capable of being happy alone? I didn’t think so. Was I capable of being happy at all? That’s the kind of question, I think, which it’s best to avoid asking.’ His books master a strange double-scope, where practically the whole of contemporary society (at times, all of humanity and beyond) is brought in for discussion and dissection, but only through an intimate account of the life of certain of its members; the end result is an extraordinary feeling of smallness and nakedness, of the individual in the whole.
In the final analysis, the political is secondary to the personal in Serotonin, or it is primary insofar as politics is an extension of the personal. When William Gass created a proto-Houellebecqian protagonist in The Tunnel’s William Kohler, his aim was to render ‘the inside of history’ and explore ‘the fascism of the heart’. Houellebecq can be charged on the first count, but not the second. In the ambiguous post-human conclusion of Atomised, he explored the possibility of escaping from the human condition, but his thought is largely grounded in a bleak tribalism. In his article on Trump, Houellebecq asserts that Europe has no shared identity whatsoever, except when he says that ‘[o]ne of the constants in Europe’s long history is the struggle against Islam; today, that struggle has simply returned to the foreground.’
His may be a literature of isolation and collapsing group identities, but that doesn’t mean ‘we’ can’t still point fingers. Sometimes, this is done intelligently, as in Atomised, where a nauseating racist outburst underlines the protagonist’s deteriorating mental state and the kind of thought process that creates those ideas. At other times, though, the bigotry is less intelligent and less excusable: see the many jokes and insults at the expense of Labrouste’s Japanese girlfriend for one example. Houellebecq is too intelligent and too perceptive to be completely written off; parts of his books, including Serotonin’s portrait of a rural France in terminal decline, may even make the reader question their own convictions. But even if the more inflammatory elements are a product of this same intelligence, that doesn’t mean they can – or should – be accepted without complaint. As far as it is possible to partially condemn a book about the ugliness of modern life, Serotonin’s treatment of women and foreigners should be handled with caution, as is indeed the case with Houellebecq’s entire body of work.
What, then, do we do with Michel Houellebecq? Serotonin is a valuable and dangerous book, a book whose very real value is bound up with its bleakness and bigotry. It should not be dismissed out-of-hand, but it cannot be accepted uncritically, either. At the same time, the book does not ask to be taken quietly, it does not want to be inoffensive, and it often manages to offend in complex and intelligent ways. Houellebecq demands active engagement from the reader and offers a careful diagnosis of the present in return. If nothing else, at least he is keeping the novel relevant until someone with solutions comes along.
ADEM BERBIC reads English and French at St John’s. He has saved the best for last. Art by Anna Covell