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Houellebecq Hunts for Meaning in Rural France

His latest novel sees another protagonist in search of hope, only to come up short.

French writer Michel Houellebecq’s new novel Serotonin would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. Released in the United States on November 19, the novel concerns a man in his mid-40s named Florent-Claude Labrouste who’s at the end of his rope. He is profoundly depressed, for reasons that start with his name and extend into every aspect of his life (Houellebecq says he’s “essentially deprived of reasons to live and of reasons to die”). Consequently, Labrouste untethers himself from his unsatisfying relationship with his 26-year-old Japanese swinger girlfriend and his career analyzing apricot sales for France’s Ministry of Agriculture, and goes “voluntarily missing.” He wanders into the countryside in search of a vague reason to keep going and reconnect with old flames. Instead he finds an economy and society in slow-motion collapse.

Labrouste is a victim of his own expectations and past romantic failures. Like Houellebecq’s other protagonists from Whatever to Submission to Platform to The Elementary Particles, he is a sexually messed-up loser who has failed to find any kind of lasting fulfillment or meaning in life. He is consumed with regret at losing love. As he recounts starkly the failure of his most important romantic relationship earlier in life: “I think I was already afraid, and I’d understood, even then, that society was a machine for destroying love.”

Labrouste is Euroskeptical (the EU is referred to as a “fat slut”) and aggressively Dutchphobic, stewing in resentment over the indifference of society and his meaningless position in it. In repeated shots at the heartless sexual marketplace, Houellebecq casts serotonin itself as a shabby, stand-in deus ex machina, a false chemical pseudo-solution to the terminal problems of the postmodern West by “transforming life into a sequence of formalities.” He writes: “It proved to be surprisingly successful overall, allowing patients to perform afresh the major rituals of a normal life within a developed society (washing, good neighbourliness, simple bureaucratic procedures….”

Serotonin is both intriguing in its vociferous despair and repulsive in its extended whining. Houellebecq does all this brilliantly well, but couldn’t he find some other subjects to explore? Despite some extraordinary evocations, sentences like this one are hard not to cringe at: “God is a mediocre scriptwriter, that’s the conviction that almost fifty years of life have led me to form, and more generally God is mediocre: the whole of his creation bears the stamp of approximation and failure, when it isn’t meanness pure and simple; of course, there are exceptions, there are definitely exceptions, the possibility of happiness had to exist if only as bait.”

One begins to feel Houellebecq should have named his character Florent-Claude LeBitter.

Nonetheless, where else but Houellebecq can you read about a sex-obsessed middle-aged man who uses words like Weltanschauung? Who else would wryly praise Francisco Franco for his contributions to the Spanish tourism industry?

Nobody is safe from Houellebecq’s hate-pen, including Paris (“that city infested with eco-friendly bourgeois”), Japanese-white relationships (“for a Japanese girl sleeping with a Westerner wasn’t far off copulating with an animal”), consumers (“what an impulsive little creature the consumer is”), priests (“when he is faced with genuine love a priest keeps his trap shut, that was what I wanted to say to him; what could he have known, the idiot, about my parents’ love?”), psychiatrists (“psychiatrists in general made me want to spew”), and unfair wages (“no human society had ever been based on the fair remuneration of work, and even a future communist society was not supposed to be based on it; for Marx, the principle of wealth distribution was reduced to this entirely hollow formula: ‘To each according to his needs’, an endless source of carping and quibbling if by some misfortune someone tried to put it into practice”). A myriad of other, generally cynical, invective-filled sentiments round out the book.

With France’s yellow vest movement having been protesting for over a year, Houellebecq’s tale of rural distress is timely and dark. Instead of a simpler life, Labrouste finds economic ruin in rural France. His old school friend Aymeric speaks of his farm family’s financial straits: “We can’t just go on losing money like that every year. If we can manage financially it’s only thanks to leasing and selling land. …Last year I sold fifty hectares to a Chinese conglomerate. They were willing to buy ten times more and pay twice the market rate. The local farmers can’t match that: they already have trouble paying back their loans and paying their leases.”

Plied with pills to kill his feelings and unable to get an erection, Labrouste is a none-too-subtle symbol of a society in decline grasping for root and purpose. Houellebecq repeatedly slams modern liberal democracy, as he has in all his books, which he parallels with individual degeneration: “that’s how a civilisation dies; without worries, without danger or drama and with very little carnage; a civilisation just dies of weariness, of self-disgust – what could social democracy offer me?”

The remarkable phenomenon of Houellebecq’s prose is that it is simultaneously engaging and compulsively readable while also abhorrent, obscenely indulgent, and repellent. He presumably intends to offend the reader; it is one of the chief purposes of his books. His protagonists are generally not meant to be sympathetic or likable, and Serotonin is no exception (though the reader does find a gnawing pity for Labrouste’s wreck of a life). Houellebecq also elicits sympathy for many of those caught up in the tragedy of Labrouste’s tale, including old compatriot Aymeric and his surrounding farm communities, with their rising suicide rates and desperate armed uprising to try to stem falling milk prices and demand protectionism.

Labrouste’s free fall and anhedonia-suffused degeneration is reminiscent of the protagonist’s torpid collapse in Platform.

“Of course I would have liked to be happy, to be part of a happy community – all humans want that – but, well, it was really out of the question at this stage,” Labrouste laments.

Ultimately Serotonin is a powerful, if cloying, read. It presents real love and moments of meaning as rare occurrences, which, if missed, render life utterly hopeless. Whether that’s true or not, readers may well require a boost in their own serotonin levels after turning the last page.

Paul Brian is a freelance journalist. He has reported for the BBC, Reuters, and Foreign Policy, and contributed to The Week, The Federalist, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website www.paulrbrian.com.