Nothing Left Worth Saving

‘Serotonin’
Michael Houellebecq in Madrid, September 2019 (Zuma Press, Inc. / Alamay stock photo)

So this is Houellebecq. Revolting. I don’t mean that as a criticism—or, at least, not entirely. Early on in Serotonin, my first foray into the work of the enfant terrible of the French literary scene, it became clear that revolting (and titillating) the reader was part of Michel Houellebecq’s point. Modern Western man, living in an exhausted, secularized civilization in the third millennium, “one millennium too many in the way that boxers have one fight too many,” looks out upon a world in which biological needs are satisfied and higher desires have withered. It is “a hell built by human beings at their convenience,” as our ridiculously named narrator, Florent-Claude Labrouste, tells us. But does a tour of this particular hell make for a good novel?

The short answer is: no, it doesn’t. Serotonin is boring, crude, sexist, shapeless, gross, troubling, and wrong. On the plus side, it’s often brilliant, and I found it sparked more serious thinking than most of the books I’ve read in the past year. Perhaps you should read it too, and join me in hell.

In terms of plot, the novel is simple. Florent, a middle-aged agricultural engineer on an antidepressant that reduces his libido, sees two attractive young women, has feelings about the experience, and after finding his girlfriend has been cheating on him in an extravagant manner, leaves her and his apartment in an attempt to disappear from life and society. Then he begins reminiscing about old girlfriends, meets up with an old school buddy in the midst of a hopeless fight between farmers and the European Union, is diagnosed by a doctor as “dying of sorrow,” and in general slowly moves closer and closer to suicide while discoursing on free trade, sex, man’s biological nature, sex, women’s genitalia, sex, local agriculture, sex, Christian civilization, sex, and sex. If this sounds dull, it is. There’s also humor, often in the style of an internet troll. At one point Florent decries Paris as a “city infested with eco-friendly bourgeois…. Perhaps I was a bourgeois too but I wasn’t eco-friendly; I drove a diesel 4x4—I mightn’t have done much good in my life, but at least I contributed to the destruction of the planet.” This line is quoted in most reviews I’ve seen of the book, and it’s about as funny as things get. More often, the humor lies in things like Florent calling various people “queer” (we get “a rural Greek queer,” “a Botticelli queer,” and “just one more London queer”).

More wearying than the jokes are the lifeless female characters, which is a serious problem in a novel where the hope of a solid romantic pairing is supposed to provide the “promise of happiness” that might alleviate our narrator’s suffering. The cheating girlfriend is utterly ridiculous—not a person but a mixture of bottomless lust, status obsession, and materialism. Even Houellebecq’s description of her genitalia beggars belief (unless he wants us to think she is a creature made not of flesh but of high-strength rubber). Then there’s a pathetic failed actress, a perfect Dane, and the innocent Camille, whom the narrator cheated on and who he hopes might save him if he manages to somehow reunite with her. As with the cheating girlfriend, Houellebecq’s descriptions of these women’s bodies tend to be more memorable than his evocations of their characters.

The narrator wields the tools of the modern, rationalist outlook to reduce every person, action, ethic, or form of community to its most deflating aspect

The defense, such as it is, is that we’re obviously not meant to take our narrator’s judgments at face value. Indeed, of all the various targets of satire here, perhaps the greatest target is the modern fetish for believing that he who approaches life the most cynically is the most honest.

The narrator wields the tools of the modern, rationalist outlook to reduce every person, action, ethic, or form of community to its most deflating aspect, generally using the glib language of pop science or psychoanalysis. Thus, an existential crisis is reduced to “a more biological one: what was the point saving a defeated old male?” Prospective child murder is justified as “the first action of a male mammal when he conquers a female.” Proust and Thomas Mann are marshalled to deflate the entire history of Western culture into a failed attempt to channel brute sexual urges (“the end of The Magic Mountain…signified the final victory of animal attraction, the definitive end of all civilization and of all culture”). And most importantly, as signified by the title, the mind is reduced to chemicals in the brain.

This cynical knowingness, elevated here to a high pitch, quickly reaches absurdity. Reading, I was reminded of Wittgenstein’s comment on the dangerous charm of Freud, who always stressed the strong prejudices against uncovering something nasty, but never admitted that “sometimes it is infinitely more attractive than it is repulsive…. Extraordinary scientific achievements have a way these days of being used for the destruction of human beings. So hold on to your brains.

Florent, always looking for the true, and therefore nasty, explanation, always wielding his magnificent learning as a weapon against his fellow man, ultimately suggests this approach has less to do with uncovering the real than with flattering oneself with superior knowledge while actually being untethered to facts and uninterested in people. More than anything, it is this inability to see beyond the crudest explanation for pleasure, joy, and community, that is destroying the narrator. “There must have been something to her besides sex,” he thinks of an ex-girlfriend currently on her own path of self-destruction, “or perhaps not—it was frightening to think maybe there had only been sex.”

 

This is all set within a society depicted as a monstrous “machine for destroying love,” a debased and instrumentalized neoliberal order that provides consumer goods at the cost of local culture and human connection. Some of Florent’s critiques are similar to those one increasingly hears from right-wing protectionists in this country. (Houellebecq recently wrote an essay for Harper’s praising Brexit and claiming Trump was “one of the best American presidents I’ve ever seen.”) Spain is described as a country “engaged in a deadly process of increasing productivity,” which had rid itself of low-skilled jobs and “condemned the majority of its population to mass unemployment.” In Florent’s career as an agronomist he’d spent years arguing for “reasonable protection measures,” but at the end of the day found things “always toppled at the last minute towards the triumph of free trade, towards the race for higher productivity.” This race toward higher productivity ruins the apricot producers of the Roussillon, the cheese farmers of Normandy, and ultimately the one remaining friend of the narrator, a farmer from an aristocratic family named Aymeric. An idealist, Aymeric attempts to farm in the old style, an effort that almost puts a crack in the narrator’s isolation. Spending time with Aymeric, even knowing that “in accounting terms” Aymeric was heading to ruin, he could listen to “the gentle mooing of the cows, the not entirely disagreeable smell of dung,” and have, if not a sense of having a place in the world, a sense of at least “belonging to a kind of organic continuum, of animal regrouping.”

But this organic continuum is dying out. Florent meets a union of local farmers organizing to fight devastating trade policies, and proceeds to explain, in the bloodless language of an economist, that their cause is hopeless, that the number of farmers needs to drop dramatically to match European standards, and that “what’s happening in French agriculture right now is a huge social plan, the biggest social plan in operation…in which people disappear individually, in their corners, without ever providing a theme for a news item.” While farmers futilely organize, or die slow deaths of despair, multinational conglomerates buy up small lots and move toward large-scale agribusiness.

One of the more horrific and affecting scenes in the book involves this modern alternative to Aymeric’s “old style” farming. Florent describes a panicked phone call from his early days with Camille, when she was studying to be a veterinarian. She’d been sent, without warning or preparation, to a huge chicken farm for eggs, a place where “thousands of chickens tried to survive in sheds lit from above by powerful halogens…featherless and scrawny, their skin irritated and infested with red mites; they lived among the decomposing corpses of their fellows, and spent every second of their brief existence—a year at most—squawking with terror.” Florent follows this vision of hell with what it enables, a Leclerc supermarket, the closest thing the modern order gets to paradise. This chain store is described as a place of “order and beauty…luxury, calm, and delight,” where the narrator walks along endless shelves of foodstuffs “from every continent,” brought by “mobilized logistics, the vast container vessels crossing uncertain seas,” all to satisfy the consumer’s every desire. Every physical desire, at least.

Meanwhile Florent is dying for a lack of love. “I needed love, and love in a very precise form,” he says, before descending yet again into flamboyant crudeness. But though the fixation here is on profane love (often, the most profane) throughout the novel there are hints that perhaps the real issue is of love of a more sacred kind. The narrator tends to describe the few people for whom he has any shred of respect as “believers.” He declares his alcoholic ex-girlfriend on a downward trajectory is beyond saving by all but “certain members of Christian sects…who give, or pretend to give, a warm welcome, as brothers in Christ, to the elderly, the disabled and the poor.” It is suggested more than once that, for people in Florent’s situation, the only two real choices are either spending time in a monastery or going to Thailand for sex tourism. Unfortunately for our Florent, the monasteries are all booked up, and, as his psychiatrist informs him, the sex tourism only works for “the kind of idiot it’s easy to con,” the kind who comes back stupidly rejuvenated and with restored belief in their manly vigor.

 

The choice, presented in its basest form, is between a brutal materialist embrace of the world and a monkish retreat into the sacred.

The choice, presented in its basest form, is between a brutal materialist embrace of the world and a monkish retreat into the sacred. No surprise, then, why Houellebecq is so popular with certain types of religious readers. He presents the image of a godless man in a secular society in a way most flattering to the believer. His characters are pathetic, unhappy, gross, oversaturated with joyless sex, and so obviously in need not only of love but of grace. And he aggressively denies any of the normal outlets for transcendence available to the nonbeliever. The natural world is repeatedly demeaned: “nature left to its own devices generally produces nothing but a shapeless and chaotic mess, made up of various plants, and is as a whole quite ugly.” High art and culture fail to nourish the soul—as demonstrated by Florent’s takes on Mann and Proust and avant-garde theater, and by the way his erudition is matched by his moral repulsiveness. Science offers only methods for carving away at the human. And politics—a popular area for providing a sense of meaning and community—appears as a futile arena in which at best well-meaning actors delude themselves into thinking they’re more than flotsam in the broader, unchangeable currents of economic and cultural change. And though God, too, is described as an obvious mediocrity, given the state of His Creation, the end of the novel provides us with a not quite successful final chapter suggesting we do indeed have clear signs of the divinity, in “those surges of love that flow into our chests and take our breath away—those illuminations, those ecstasies, inexplicable if we consider our biological nature.”

The end might not work as art, but Houellebecq does seem to be leading us to something like the right set of questions. Not simply “In what shall we believe?” but also “How shall we structure society such that a belief in what nourishes the human is possible?” In Houellebecq, secularism and, as Marx predicted, capitalism have taken all that once provided meaning and community and begun to dissolve it in an acid bath, leaving atomized individuals who believe themselves composed, individually, of nothing more than atoms. This picture of man, seemingly so rational, is also absurd, as is attested by the often comic efforts of materialists like Daniel Dennett and Michael Graziano to deal with the hard problem of consciousness by claiming it doesn’t exist (“the silliest claim ever made,” complained the philosopher Galen Strawson, next to which “every known religious belief is only a little less sensible than the belief that grass is green.”)

“Man is a being of reason,” Houellebecq recently declared in an exchange with the conservative French journalist Geoffroy Lejeune, “but he is above all a being of flesh, and of emotion.” All well and good. But then he added that the restoration of Catholicism to its former splendor—meaning twelfth-century Christians painstakingly constructing splendid Romanesque cathedrals—could repair our damaged civilization. And here we get to the danger, for the religious, of indulging too much in Houellebecq’s flattering but fundamentally nostalgic worldview, in which no progression is possible and our only hope is in a return to a past that we can’t quite believe in anymore. Such nostalgia, after all, is as much a sign of civilizational failure as any other moral monstrosity to which he draws our attention. And the movements that have periodically helped rejuvenate the church, from the revolutionary poverty and street preaching of the Franciscans to the highly intellectual missionary and educational ministry of the Jesuits, have been progressive reactions to their specific time, designed to move the church forward. Even the monasteries Houellebecq references are not really meant to be isolated spaces sealed off from the encroaching darkness. As expressed in the classic formulation of Étienne de Fougères—“the clergy pray for all, the knights defend all, the peasants labor for all”—they’re part of a complementary order of society: not simply the “organic continuum” of Aymeric’s farm but an organic and spiritual continuum binding society, in which all are implicated, true retreat is impossible, and a belief in grace entails a belief in the future, not the past.

So, by all means, read this novel. Just don’t mistake Houellebecq for a prophet. 

Serotonin
Michel Houellebecq
Translated by Shaun Whiteside
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$13.99 | 320 pp.

Published in the March 2020 issue: 

Phil Klay is the author of Redeployment (Penguin Books) and the host of the podcast Manifesto! He teaches in the Fairfield University MFA program.

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