A drug for our times?

Updated: Apr 16

Serotonin, by Michel Houellebecq, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019


While thoroughly un-PC to admit to this nowadays, I have to declare I'm a certified Michel Houellebecq fanatic. Call me old fashioned but writing is the one last preserve where the 'anything goes' dictum must be preserved at all costs. I hardly need to quote Voltaire (I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it) but in fact so severe is the threat against literary freedoms, that it has to be restated – boldly, loudly - now more than ever. In an age where authors are simply "cancelled" because their views, perspectives, sentiments and opinions fall contrary to the heavily policed over-zealousness of these narrow-minded and the intellectually inferior cultural zombies who have somehow been allowed to claim moral authority over social consciousness, we need outright provocateurs more than ever, and the more controversial, heretic and salacious the better. As Coetzee would say, in a free world the right to give offence is paramount.


Unlike the spoken word (song, recitation, acting), the still or moving image (sculpture, painting, photography, cinema), which comes at you quick and instant and is thus somewhat at times an unavoidable and unwelcomed interject - the written word by its very nature unravels in such slow and methodical progression that you pretty much know what's coming next, what is unfolding and you can work out that you're about to be offended, in which case, why not just stop reading? Why not simply exercise that right and leave the rest of us in peace to get on with the thrill of art’s core intention – to provoke us towards a response, any response, but a response nonetheless. Anyway that's another argument.

I fear Houellebecq has been ‘cancelled’ in America. Or perhaps he is just not as appreciated as I believe he ought to be: I waited many a long and patient month for Serotonin to finally be published in translation and when I breezed into the bookshop the eventual morning of its release, I was fully expecting a whole pile of them to be stacked up on the front table where all the latest releases of any pedigree at all are given pride of place. But no, nothing in sight. I dashed upstairs to the fiction section to scour the ‘H’ shelves but it wasn’t there either. Eventually it took a rather weary looking sales assistant half an hour to track down a copy for me, eventually finding one in some wayward side storeroom somewhere. Apparently only two copies of the new title were ordered. Hmmm. Really? For an author with such an international reputation, I smell a distinct rat here …


Long considered the enfant terrible of French letters, Houellebecq has never been shy to let his dirt fly, often dousing you in the scatological filth of his grime-smeared vision of the world: after reading Houellebecq at his most sadistically nihilistic you feel your skin crawl with the muck and grunge of humanity at our most depraved and desperate; you want to stand under a hot shower and scrub yourself clean with an undiluted antiseptic solution, but that's what makes him such a great writer and chronicler of our wayward times. So bleak is his outlook, so shaped by this crestfallen realisation of despair, that he often cuts to the very soul of our modern condition but in a way which is so prescient as to be rendered inviolably true and alarmingly honest. Whether it's the sex-trade industry which preludes Islamic fundamentalism in Platform or the blunt misogynistic crudity of a sexist nightmare in Atomised or the rise of a totalitarian theocracy in Submission, he has always somehow had his finger on the pulse of our most immediate existence. For me, his unquestionable masterpiece is The Map and the Territory, a scathing satire of the art world and the gradual decomposition of the entire modern social project as we've known it for the past five hundred years: you can't finish this book without somehow wanting to immediately do everything in your power to sidestep its slow-burner nightmare presentation of our very close-at-hand fate. It functions as an antidote to inaction.


But to Serotonin. Baffled for much of this novel, I was tempted to halt it at one point and declare it an outright failure, a mark perhaps of the theme of impotence his protagonist - one Florent-Claude Labrouste - so well and continually embodies. Has Houellebecq lost his mojo, so to speak? Are we seeing a great artiste marking a decline in his virile powers? In fact, the whole central premise here seems to be the deployment of an ever increasing volume of anti-depressants in an attempt firstly to subdue and then eventually entirely eradicate the male libido from existence. Sex – the mechanics of acquiring it, to be specific, after his nymphomaniac girlfriend betrays him with typical French brutality - just seems like a bother, an effort Labrouste can't really muster the strength for anymore. But what is this a metaphor for? Is Houellebecq commenting obliquely about the declining birth-rate in the West, suppressed by an ever greater reliance on various forms of drugs - actual narcotics, yes, but also social media, the internet age, the yawing trap of capitalism itself? There is something quite Nietzschean under all this.


The conceit revealed here is that Labrouste is diagnosed with having "too much serotonin" (or is it cortisol?) and his doctor tells him he is gradually "dying of sadness" but that if he takes any more anti-depressants (serotonin or cortisol?) he can laugh off any sense of a "normal life" - fulfillment, energy, a sex-drive. In turn as his body and mind and passions go into decline, so does the very essence of French economic sustainability in the form of the effect of globalisation (EU agricultural policies and the like) and so there is a neat parallel between, as the book jacket says, "a miserable body and a suffering body politic." I'm not sure this all came across very satisfactorily, give or take a few 'classic' Houellebecq set-pieces and the dotted array of his usual deadpan throwaway mordancy which is always so darkly funny to read. The final short chapter is a typical Houellebecq revelation of surrender to a higher undefined fate (although here, weirdly, he actually names God) which he does so well, but I'm not sure, in this case, what precedes it warrants such deftly conclusive and poetic sentiment. The ‘parts just don’t add up to the whole.’




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