Method in the sadness: Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq is an author who masters the art of decline, as well as the art of writing unspeakable and often unlikable truths in a world which is increasingly unwilling to accept such talk.

In print he’s been convicted of misogyny, sexism, casual-homophobia, racism and in real life, a charge of hate crime regarding comments about Islam which took him all the way to court. In his own defence of such crimes, he says, “You need more motivation than that to write a novel.”

Regardless of these misdemeanours and his own motivations, he remains France’s main literary export. Every new writing demands, almost certainly gets, wide spread attention. Indeed, there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.

Regular readers of Houellebecq won’t be surprised to find that in Serotonin, we’re presented with a narrator much like those of old. Florent-Claude Labrouste is middle aged, tremendously well off  and openly miserable on the subject of human as well as  his own existence. Only a writer like Houellebecq could fend off the violins.

Florent-Claude mediates on typical and almost always interesting, even captivating, Houellebecqian philosophies such as men and women, sex, existence and love, done so as our main character concludes that his only solution to his current situation is change. Labrouste proceeds to leave his current lover, his job, even his own home, and takes us on a journey through hotels with no smoking (hell on earth) and a future he seems confident on negotiating. Even the small problem a no-longer functioning phallus, brought by the effects of taking ‘massive doses’ of Captorix, his antidepressant, has a bright side.

“I took off my trousers.. to make it easier for her to take me in her mouth, but in truth I had already had a disturbing premonition, and when she chewed away on my inert organ for three minutes with no result, I felt the situation risked degenerating, and I confessed to her that I was taking antidepressants… the effect of those few words was magical.”

“Life is always bitter and disappointing”

Early on, our protagonist looks through his soon-to-be ex Japanese swinger-friendly girlfriend’s laptop only to find footage of her engaged in a session of pornographic activity with a posse of dogs. Dear reader, as is no doubt standard reaction in these situations, Florent-Claude’s initial impulse is to throw her out the window from their high storey penthouse apartment in a moment of comedy few depressives in their most manic of states could create. It’s one of many scenes in this novel which, despite the apparent melancholy, is as hilarious as anything Houellebecq has written. For all the bad mouthing over his alleged prejudices, he is not given nearly enough credit for just how fucking hilarious he can be.

It’s true that in some of Houellebecq there is an increasing aspect of self parody, particularly in his detailing on a woman’s sexual abilities; yes, this is a writer who really appreciates a mind-altering blow-job. And it’s true that at times he does manage to sound like Schopenhaur selling whores on the telemarketing channel. However such descriptions are always presented and contained within a much deeper (excuse the expression) combination of meaning and overall importance to the work on display. His latest novel does things most of us have marvelled at previously, but as the writer evolves in his own state, for better or worse, and so does the prose he presents.

A much needed dramatic and violent third act which evokes and pre-dates the Yellow Vest uprising brings Serotonin back to the realms of novel, as well as reminding us that we’re dealing with an author with a strange ability to gauge modern movements in a political as well as cultural landscape.

Watch a recent interview with the man himself for more context:


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