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.