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Michel Houellebecq’s Fragile World

How much does the French author owe his popularity to the rise of virulent nationalism?

Alessandro Albert/Getty

Is man an animal? If there is a question that reverberates through the entire oeuvre of the French writer Michel Houellebecq, one presented with great emphasis in his most recent novel, Serotonin, it is this. The question can, of course, be qualified in various ways. One could add racial or cultural or class modifiers—Is the white man an animal? Is European man an animal? Is the bourgeois man an animal?—because those are the categories of “man” Houellebecq is interested in. But no matter how qualified, there is no getting away from the question in Serotonin. It echoes in small, solitary hotel rooms, on the luxurious driving seat of a Mercedes 4x4, on Parisian streets that appear empty of humanity, and along a Normandy countryside that seems bereft of nature. It is even expressed directly, toward the end of the novel, as the protagonist takes himself to a studio flat in the Parisian suburbs: “So I was now at the stage where the aging animal, wounded and aware of being fatally injured, seeks a den in which to end its life.”

SEROTONIN by Michel Houellebecq
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pp., $27.00

The persona through which Houellebecq’s novel refracts and magnifies this question of man and his wounded animal nature is that of Florent-Claude Labrouste, a 46-year-old consultant for the French Agriculture Ministry. Independently wealthy, in a relationship with a Japanese woman 20 years younger than he, Florent decides to leave everything behind and attempt a life of anonymous invisibility. He quits his job, abandons his co-habitant, Yuzu, whom he detests, and begins a journey that is simultaneously a voyage into his inner self and an exploration of the state of contemporary France. Throughout, he is accompanied by a new wonder drug called Captorix, “a small, white, scored oval tablet” that fights depression by increasing the serotonin level in his blood but that also has the side effects of “loss of libido and impotence.”

A good part of this account takes places in standard Houellebecqian style. The writing is first-person, breezy, Florent as an individual character inevitably meant to function as a type, his depression and impotence a metaphor for European bourgeois masculinity in this second decade of the twenty-first century. Houellebecq is deft in his rendition of bureaucratic acronyms (“AOP status,” “European AOCs,” “ABC+ and … ABC++ economic groups”) and brand names (Volvic, Mercedes, Coke Zero, Cruzcampo, Calvados). The former is invariably depicted as absurd, while the latter is rendered in a more varied mix where the narrator seesaws between repulsion and admiration for the endless inventiveness of global consumerism, sometimes registering both affects simultaneously, as in his description of “my MacBook Air, a thin parallelepiped of brushed aluminium; my entire past weighed 1,100 grammes.” To this, Houellebecq adds his trademark reactionary characterizations, marginalized groups always reduced to offensive stereotypes, women invariably reduced to body parts and types, with the milder renditions in this novel being “old queens,” “the dangerous classes,” “illegal Malians,” “tree hugger,” “rural Greek queer,” “a bunch of Romanians,” “moist parts,” “firm little breasts,” and “fat slut.”

It is a well-honed formula for Houellebecq, all the way down to the efforts to lend gravitas to this outlook through passing literary and philosophical references. Even though there is little about Florent, by his own admission, that marks him out as a deep thinker or as much of a reader, this slim novel is weighed down heavily with French and European classics: Schopenhauer, Catherine Millet, Georges Bataille, Blanchot, Cioran, Loti, Segalen, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Christine Angot, Zola, the Marquis de Sade, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, Arthur Conan Doyle, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Vladimir Nabokov, and, most surprisingly, the brilliant but nearly forgotten American science fiction writer Thomas M. Disch.

None of this, in itself, is particularly impressive or imaginative, even if the pages turn smoothly and the occasional passing insight is on offer. Neither offensiveness nor high culture references can disguise the lurking suspicion that the writer is as shallow and limited in his understanding of the world as his protagonist. Therefore, even though much of the first half of the novel is given over to Florent recalling various past romantic and sexual encounters, his understanding of relationships is so limited as to be tiresome. There is much talk of love, as there is much talk of sex, but it is all confined to heterosexual coupling and treated entirely in isolation from any other ties of affiliation, whether family, friendship, or community. Heterosexual coupling itself, moreover, is understood by Houellebecq’s narrator through three interpretive frames: the pornographic, the romantic, and the biological. Inevitably, each of these clashes with the others.

Florent describes for us in incredible, even tedious, detail the two possibilities at fulfilling relationships that came his way, one in his twenties with the Norwegian Kate, the other some years later with Camille, whose Portuguese parents have long been settled in France. Each of these opportunities he destroyed, he admits, by indulging in thoughtless flings; the first time through an affair with a nameless woman from São Paulo, and on the second occasion by sleeping with a British woman of Jamaican origin. Europe, in its northern and southern edges, offers possibilities, in other words, but the globalized world ruins them with women who appear in one of only two available forms, as sirens who destroy the potential romantic relationships, or as furies, like Yuzu, who emphasize the destruction. Then, when all possibilities are gone, the romantic as well as the sexual, there is only the biological inevitability of man as aging, wounded animal, his flagging sex drive accentuated by the modernity that on the one hand offers Captorix pills and on the other hand torments the now impotent pill-taker by parading an endless array of youthful sexual bodies past him.

Houellebecq has charted these realms before, and in much the same manner. Seven previous novels—Whatever (1994), The Elementary Particles (1998), Lanzarote (2000), Platform (2001), The Possibility of an Island (2006), The Map and the Territory (2012), and Submission (2015)—have been published over two decades. Each novel could in itself appear distinctive to a reader coming into contact with Houellebecq for the first time, but on closer acquaintance, they begin to blur rapidly into one another.

Every novel features protagonists similar to Florent: bourgeois French men caught up in an inner turmoil charged by loneliness, sexual dilemma, and the state of the globalized world. Every one of these books includes graphic, schematic renditions of sex, with frequent references to internet porn and sex tourism, which, along with the inevitable crude depictions of women, have garnered significant attention for Houellebecq as a maverick writer. In the crassness of the writing, it has often been argued, there is actually a critique, an understanding—reinforced by frequent narratorial asides as well as writerly exegeses in interviews and essays—that this desiccated landscape of human relationships is what one gets when the 1960s assault on heterosexual monogamy arrives, through the wasteland of the 1980s, at the internet-driven, globalized, and consumerist approach to life of recent decades.

This is not an uninteresting take on the matter, but Houellebecq’s perspective on sex would probably not, by itself, have propelled him to lasting international fame. That, and in particular his reputation as a prophetic writer, came about from the intersection in his novels of sexual anomie and societal breakdown, in the way Houellebecq crosshatched global economic and political forces with the lonely, sexually frustrated lives of his protagonists. There was a perfect coincidence in the timing of the novels, too, beginning as they did with the reconstruction of Europe in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, through the morass of the European Union, globalization, U.S.-led wars demonizing Muslims and Islam, and the rise of China to the state of current collapse, where similar, virulent nationalisms contend for popular support everywhere against an ongoing backdrop of economic distress, climate change, and entrenched global elites.

Islam, or the Islamic other, in particular, offered Houellebecq a particularly convenient counterpoint to the existential crisis of his protagonists, inserting him swiftly into a hallowed French literary tradition dating back as far as Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Platform, published in 2001—its opening line, in the most obvious example of sampling Camus, goes “Father died last year”—took the sexual hunger of its main character, Michel, all the way to the Caribbean and Thailand before colliding it, toward the very end, with an Islamist terrorist attack that seemed to prefigure a terror attack in Bali that killed over 200. Published in France just before the attacks of September 11, Platform elevated Houellebecq into a prophetic figure for Western media, a status further cemented when he was taken to court for stating his contempt for Islam in a publicity interview. By the time Submission came out in 2015, contempt appeared to have become fuddled fantasy. Released on the same day as the terrorist attacks on the office of the satirical, racist weekly Charlie Hebdo, the novel, with its account of an Islamist party coming to power in France, appeared well timed to address the burning issues of the day. Predictably, Houellebecq’s fame has been greatest in France, Britain, and the United States, superpower nations preeminent in the unfolding, and unraveling, world order of the new century.

The social axis in Serotonin is, however, not Islam but the gilets jaunes movement, wounded individual white masculinity alloyed finally into wounded collective white masculinity instead of opposed to it, as in the earlier novels that pitted agonized Westerners against the unified virility of Islam. Minorities, in fact, have receded largely into the background in Serotonin, present either as sexual possibilities or—as in the case of Chinese investors buying up property in Normandy or poorer immigrants living in the southern suburbs of Paris—only worth a passing comment from Florent. Instead, the men who attempt to gather themselves into a resisting force against the state are composed of struggling French farmers led by Florent’s former classmate, Aymeric d’Harcourt-Olonde.

Aymeric is perhaps the only figure depicted with something like affection in this novel. Not inconsequentially, he is also the only character in a novel populated by types or shadows. Unlike Kate and Camille, the idealized romantic possibilities spurned by Florent, Aymeric seems to possess some interiority. In agricultural college, he is a longhaired, grungy, mildly countercultural youth. After graduation, even as Florent rushes off to work for Monsanto, Aymeric returns to his aristocratic estate in Normandy to attempt organic dairy farming. When, some years later, Florent moves to Normandy to work for an agricultural organization called DRAF—the Regional Directorate of Agriculture and Forestry—he finds that Aymeric has become a hardworking family man, struggling with the economics of small-scale farming in a globalized world but trying to make a valiant go of it.

The contrast, of course, is deliberate, intended to reveal that even the idealistic Aymeric is doomed to fail under current conditions. Globalization and its adjunct, the European Union, have pitted farmers around the world against one another, a process in which the only winners can be Monsanto, DRAF, and the technocratic elite who profit off this arrangement in metropolitan centers like Paris and Brussels. And so, when Florent, having abandoned his job and Yuzu, turns up at the Harcourt farm, he finds Aymeric methodically reassembling an assault rifle while swilling vodka from a bottle: “He had changed physically, his features had grown thick and blotchy, but the most frightening thing was his gaze: a hollow, dead gaze that he seemed unable to distract for more than a few seconds from contemplation of the void.” Eventually, Aymeric and his fellow farmers take their weapons and blockade the highway to Paris, much in the manner of the yellow-vested gilets jaunes protesters who had begun erecting barricades and started demonstrating against the French government since the end of 2018.

This is perhaps the most poignant moment in the book, a relief certainly from Florent’s penis gazing. Yet even this account of an uprising reveals the limitations of Houellebecq’s craft. There is the language, of course, an easily digestible mash that seems to channel self-help books, thrillers, and the overwrought style of the early-twentieth-century American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, whose work Houellebecq admired sufficiently to write an entire book on him at the beginning of his own career. But Houellebecq, although he shares Lovecraft’s racism, is a greatly diminished writer compared to his New England idol. Lovecraft, quite possibly insane, eschewed realism entirely for an astonishingly demented but powerful cosmography of ancient aliens preying upon the white man much as the white man had dominated others into the twentieth century.

Houellebecq harbors Balzacian ambitions as well as Lovecraftian rhapsodies. Aymeric may be contemplating the void with a hollow gaze, but there is no equivalent to Cthulhu in this universe, and Houellebecq’s mode is realism rather than fantasy. In spite of the desire to provide social commentary on current conditions in France, Houellebecq does so only in sporadic fashion. His insistent portrayal of Aymeric as an aristocrat idealist—he has a lineage going back to the Viking conquest of Normandy in 911 C.E.—makes the farmer a feudal element well past his expiration date, courageous but quixotic. It also neuters the critique Houellebecq wants to make of the corporations and bureaucracies, or of the range and depth of the contemporary crisis. There is nothing in Aymeric that captures the amorphous mix of the unemployed, semi-employed, caregivers, pensioners, youth, and small entrepreneurs who characterize the gilets jaunes movement, and whose loathing is directed not just at the bureaucracy but at a globalized, urban French elite, a capitalist-technocratic class exemplified for them by Bernard Arnault, billionaire owner of Louis Vuitton and assorted Veblen goods, as well as the smooth-talking banker-turned-president Emmanuel Macron.

This antipathy is not something Houellebecq is capable of capturing. His interest is not in groups or collectives or even in social breakdown, except when refracted through the bourgeois male. There are moments of flickering insight, as in an antisocial German bird-watcher met in passing on Aymeric’s property, and a man from whom Florent briefly rents a bungalow. The former turns out to be a pedophile, while the landlord, who describes himself as a “failed architect” and physically resembles Florent, appears to have been a swinger and devotee of de Sade. Both men function as doppelgänger figures for Florent, and together they suggest something of the dead end, menacing but exhausted, that Houellebecq believes his kind of man has reached.

Yet Houellebecq’s penchant is for the sentimental and the melodramatic rather than the subtle, and he ends up, therefore, overemphasizing this. Florent, suddenly, turns into a stalker, lurking near the house of his former love Camille, obsessed with killing her four-year-old son with a sniper rifle in whose workings he has been schooled by Aymeric. The rationale for this is couched in predictably sociobiological terms: “The first action of a male mammal when he conquers a female is to destroy all her previous offspring to ensure the pre-eminence of his genotype. This attitude had been maintained for a long time in the first human populations.”

It is not giving away too much to say that in the end Florent cannot go through with this act of murder, any more than he can execute his fantasy of committing suicide by jumping out of the window of the studio in which he finally installs himself. It almost doesn’t matter in this study of alienation that suggests, as much as the end of man, the aging animal, an endgame to Houellebecq’s creaking craft. Decades ago, before his rise to fame, Houellebecq wrote of Lovecraft: “We read his stories in exactly the same spirit of sickness in which he wrote them.” Serotonin suggests that we need to be very sick indeed to match the spirit in which Houellebecq wrote the book.