To read / 16 January 2019

Sad novel or a big prank?

A review of Michel Houellebecq's Sérotonine

Sérotonine, Michel Houellebecq's seventh novel, was preceded by an unparalleled hullabaloo: newspapers, magazines, radio and television celebrated the release of this book as the most anticipated literary event in France and Europe. Some journalists have bestowed on this famous, mysterious and disturbing author the title of visionary and even that of Prophet! Houellebecq would be the only one to have foreseen the Yellow Vests movement whose color seems to be spreading at the speed of an oil spill. Already, journalists claim, Michel Houellebecq had been the only one to perceive at the extreme end of the horizon, the surging wave of terrorism. Could they have forgotten Zola? Hugo? And so many others!

This novel, Sérotonine, was released in France on Friday, January 4th. I went to buy it three days later in one of the largest bookstores in Paris. By Saturday morning there was not a single copy left. 200 had flown the coop with one wing stroke! The lucky publisher, Flammarion, a visionary too, dared a first print run of 320,000 copies. So no shortage to fear. Just a little patience, there will be enough for everyone. And this novel, simultaneously translated into German, Italian, Spanish and English would take off in Europe as spectacularly as in France. "An unbelievable amount of money!”

And so, full of hope, a good novel, what a joy, I started reading Sérotonine the moment I finally managed to buy the book.

A small, white, oval, scored tablet, the Captorix, helps Florent-Claude Labrouste, 46, to control a severe depression, to endure complete loneliness, and "the unbearable emptiness of days." Enclosed in his small hotel room in the thirteenth arrondissement of Paris, this man who calls himself "shitty garbage", "penis-obsessed”, "an aging wounded animal", binges on television, especially cooking shows. And during his days more empty than the sky (curiously, in this dark novel, the sky, described many times, is still a bright blue, a blue postcard), Florent-Claude remembers especially his love failures which continue to tear him apart. His story, from beginning to end and on all levels, professional and social, remains hopelessly creepy. His life, he says, looks like "an endless night." Only cunt, pussy, fucking, fellatio, "casual hookups with young girls not in flower, but still with a wet pussy", save him from suicide.

On Page 73, Houellebecq via the voice of his narrator, justifies himself: "I will be wrongly reproached perhaps for granting too much importance to sex. Sex remains the only moment of one’s life where one personally and directly engages his organs, so the passage through sex and intense sex, remains a necessary passage in order for the love affair to happen, nothing can take place without it. But the narrator, after a long defense speech, loses direction, he confesses, "by dint of drinking glasses of cognac then a bottle of calvados". A drunken delirium? I do not believe it. And listening to him, feminists have plenty to be angry about. Seriously angry, my granddaughter would say.

The only friend of the narrator, the aristocrat d’Harcourt, slaves away from dawn to night for the sole purpose of preserving what remains of his land, his castle and especially his three hundred dairy cows, which have bankrupted him since the price of milk dropped. His wife, Cécile, has just left him; she fled an unbearable, inhuman existence. She went off with another man, a pianist who makes her life sweet and has plenty of free time. Since then, each evening, d'Harcourt, after a dinner of sad, cold cuts, ingests an entire liter of vodka. He is destroying himself, and everything around him is deteriorating. And foreshadows his ruin. Vodka is his little white tablet, it's his serotonin, his happiness pill.

Houellebecq's writing, in this novel, reflects the same neglect as his narrator who, very often and for days at a time, does not bother to wash or even to change clothes. If you want to understand the helplessness of this man who sinks into regret and lamentation, go directly to the last page. This is good advice, you'll see. Houellebecq paints a portrait of his sad-faced hero and gives you the keys to his incurable depression: "He never belonged to the world, he never imagined himself living, loving, or being loved, he is one of those who have always known that their life was not within their reach. " Florent-Claude Labrouste, who even hates his name, for whom Freud is "an Austrian clown", recognizes far too late that he "could have made two women happy," he told us which, Kate and Camille. He comments on their mutual failure: "They gave in to the illusions of individual freedom, of an open life, of infinite possibilities. They let themselves be destroyed by them. These ideas were in the spirit of the times”.

It's a facile explanation.

And in the final analysis, if you make the effort to read this novel to the end, you will have a surprise: Houellebecq understands and shares the point of view of Christ and laments along with him the hardening of our hearts.

Disconcerted by this novel that does not offer much of substance to feel attached to, I wondered if our very intelligent and very talented and very clever writer had not indulged himself by perpetrating an elaborate prank. That of exploiting our naivety, our credulity. A novel by Houellebecq is inevitably a good novel, scandalous or cynical. Houellebecq is always a new style, a new subject.

And so we can’t wait to read it. Continually hammered by pernicious promotion, could we have lost our ability to think clearly? Our critical sense? Would we be so easily fooled? If my assumption, that of a brilliantly orchestrated Houellbecquian mischievousness, is not altogether wrong, if the writer has enjoyed taking us for a ride, then bravo!

Might this novel therefore serve as a cautionary tale? A warning? Would it be exhorting us, by its volitional weaknesses to resist siren songs, as media-hyped as they might be?

The last sentence of the novel Sérotonine :"It would be seem so", answers also the questions I am asking.

Translated from the French by Diane Joy Charney