Tuesday 22 October 2019

Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq: France’s literary bad boy aims his ire at the EU

Fiction: Serotonin

Michel Houellebecq

William Heinemann, hardback, 309 pages, €16.99

An accidental Nostradamus: even though Serotonin was written before their protests, Houellebecq predicts the rise of the populist gilets jaunes
An accidental Nostradamus: even though Serotonin was written before their protests, Houellebecq predicts the rise of the populist gilets jaunes
Ageing provocateur: Michel Houellebecq
Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Regarded by many critics as the most important living French writer and derided by others as little more than a Gallic literary troll, there's no doubt that Michel Houellebecq is the bad boy of French letters.

An unreconstructed and unapologetic misanthrope whose despair at the world around him is matched only by his own visceral levels of self-loathing, Houellebecq has been pursuing an often lonely, frequently dangerous path through the various issues assailing his home country.

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He also has a rather unusual knack for accidentally predicting future events.

He may not be a modern Nostradamus, but he has justifiably earned a reputation for seeing which way the political and cultural winds are blowing.

In 2001, his controversial novel on sex tourism and terrorism, Platform, contained scenes eerily similar to the Bali beach attacks a year later.

But it was his most recent, and undoubtedly finest work, Submission, which propelled him to a wider, more uncomfortable fame.

Featuring a dissolute academic who watches on with detached horror as a French Islamist party gains power and installs a form of Sharia-lite on France, it was received with the now customary wailing, gnashing of teeth, accusations of Islamophobia and legal action taken against him.

Those arguments quickly disappeared when, on the day Submission was published, terrorists stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo and slaughtered 12 people.

Coincidentally, a cartoon of the author darkly predicting the future appeared on the cover of that magazine on the day of the attack and he was inextricably linked to the atrocity.

Interestingly enough, and reminding us that gallows humour is still alive and well, Charlie Hebdo declined to review his latest, Serotonin, joking in its pages that: "We won't be saying anything bad about it: the last time we did wasn't a success for us." 

Following his contention that Islam was inherently violent and "the stupidest religion of them all," he has been under 24-hour armed police protection, although he admits that such a claustrophobic arrangement actually helped him write Serotonin "because in such seclusion, what else is there to do but write?"

If  France's Islamic leaders were rather put out by Submission, Serotonin has already attracted the ire of France's political aristocracy, and given the searing contempt he hurls at them in these pages, it's not hard to see why.

Florent-Claude Labrouste hates everything, including his life - when he can even muster sufficient energy to feel an emotion as strong as that. Convinced that he's slowly dying of sadness, Labrouste is stuck with a younger girlfriend who loathes him, a job as an engineer which is pointless and unfulfilling, and is suffused with the kind of industrial-strength ennui that only a French author could conjure. He even hates his own name, but admits that: "I have done nothing, I have gone on being called by that disgusting first name Florent-Claude."

The introduction of a new anti-depressant, Captorix, increases the serotonin output in the brain and allows the prematurely decrepit 46-year-old to function better, but Houellebecq being Houellebecq of course it also leads to impotence.

Even so, he's a fan of the new wonder drug and an even bigger fan of smoking, his description of nicotine as the "perfect drug, a simple, hard drug that brings no joy, defined entirely by a lack, and by the cessation of that lack" is a sentiment that will resonate with smokers.

As is usually the case with Houellebecq, women feature strongly and, as usual, it seems he knows little about them and cares even less. The women here are described purely on their ability to sexually please and it's hardly surprising that one French critic sniffed that, "it's like the #MeToo movement has passed him by".

Another of his many detractors added that the "whole aesthetic of the 'old white male' is dated, past its sell-by date and clearly no longer brings anything good".

That's a sentiment which is even shared by the hapless Florent-Claude who asks: "What is the point of trying to save a vanquished, old white male?"

But to focus on his consistently dim (in every sense of the word) view of women would be to miss the point of Serotonin, which is a simple one - he hates the EU, hates the euro and, just as he seemed to forecast a variety of terrorist attacks in previous works, here he has managed to predict the rise of the gilets jaunes.

His return to Normandy sees him discover a region on its knees - EU milk quotas and bureaucracy have destroyed entire farming communities and he divides his rage between the EU and France's own leaders.

Written before the rise of populist gilets jaunes, he is truly a remarkably prescient writer, although the violence meted out at one blockade has yet to be repeated by the real-life protesters.

There is a detachment to his writing that many find cold; but the ageing provocateur has a sense of mischief to match his nihilism, but Serotonin can be read as a serious warning that France is ripe for another revolution. 

How ironic that in the current climate, the best anti-EU novel should be written by a Frenchman.

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