By Michel Houellebecq, William Heinemann, 309pp, £20/$27
Michel Houellebecq, the French novelist and professional contrarian, delights in puncturing metro-liberal orthodoxies and shocking the reader with descriptions of internet pornography, pill-popping, sex tourism, the plight of the modern male and other aspects of urban anomie.
Though not for the faint-hearted, Houellebecq is admired in France for his gift of foresight. Submission, his dystopian fantasy of a Saudi-funded Islamic France of the near future, was praised for anticipating the events at the Parisian office of Charlie Hebdo, while his latest novel, Serotonin, coincided with the emergence of the anti-metropolitan French agitators known as the gilets jaunes (yellow vests).
First published in France in January, Serotonin is narrated by a cantankerous 46-year-old, Florent-Claude Labrouste, who is “dying of sorrow”, according to his doctor. Ever since his parents killed themselves in a suicide pact on the eve of their 40th birthdays, life has become unutterably bleak for Labrouste, who finds himself bogged down in a state of acedia (listlessness) and sexual difficulties. A new generation anti-depressant called Captorix has finally done for his libido and left him in despair.
Labrouste is “revolted by the pointlessness” of his job at the Ministry of Agriculture, where trade quotas have reduced bureaucrats to an “advanced state of exasperation”. To top it all, he hates his “ridiculous” first name, Florent-Claude. What to do? As part of a scheme to disappear from life in general and from his feckless Japanese girlfriend Yuzu in particular, Labrouste quits his Eurocrat’s job in Paris (a city designed to “generate loneliness”) and embarks on a disjointed, nostalgia-tinged ramble through past sexual adventures, recollecting old conquests and old flames as he does so.
Moving back and forth from 2001 to the present, Serotonin is calculated to cause huffy botheration, if not infuriate readers. Labrouste says he dislikes not only the Dutch (“Holland isn’t a country, it’s a business venture”) but also Parisian “eco-friendly” bourgeoisie, along with non-smokers and artisanal Normandy cheeses. Only one of Labrouste’s women, Camille, is accorded a proper history and life of her own. A trainee vet in her mid-30s, Camille is commended for her concern for battery chickens as well as her youthful good looks.
Yuzu, by contrast, is a “spider” feeding on Labrouste’s “vital fluids”, and is vacuously obsessed, moreover, with designer brands and labels. When Labrouste stumbles on a video depicting Yuzu’s infidelities, he resolves to ditch her. Having callously betrayed Camille in his earlier life, Labrouste now yearns to be reunited with her, and begins to stalk her and her four-year-old son, scoping them at a distance through a pair of binoculars.
In the course of his stalking, Labrouste returns to his native Normandy, where he calls on an old friend, Aymeric d’Harcourt-Olonde, a divorced cattle farmer with an interest in firearms and 1970s progressive rock. From his dilapidated château littered with guns and Pink Floyd vinyl, Aymeric fights for the rights of local dairy farmers and shares their antipathy to free trade treaties and
EU-driven polices which, we learn, have ruined local agri-industries. “Europe” is seen throughout as godless and cruel in its landscape and stranglehold of red tape; though the words gilets jaunes never appear, the movement’s grievance is felt.
Serotonin does not want for unsavoury characters, among them a paedophile birdwatcher who looks like a “German academic on sick leave”, and a GP who “looks more like a heavy-metal bass player than a doctor”. We watch appalled as Labrouste drifts in his vintage Mercedes through a flat, technocratic France that “had become a neutral surface without relief or attraction”. Houellebecq’s remorselessly bleak view of modern life does at times weary the reader.
Yet his observations on upscale gastronomy, gentrification and the depredations wrought by late capitalism are often oddly invigorating. An interesting subplot emerges on the subject of why French farmers are killing themselves “one by one, on their plots of land, without being noticed”. Among the novel’s many other provocations is the proposal that General Franco be re-assessed as a “real giant” for his contributions to the development of mass tourism.
A poet of contemporary malaise, the 63-year-old Houellebecq takes on subjects that no British author would dare to consider, and he does so with a distempered, blackly pessimistic humour all his own.