No Exit

Serotonin BY Michel Houellebecq. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 320 pages. $27.

The cover of Serotonin

I missed Guillaume Nicloux’s film The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq on its release in 2014. What a mistake—it’s a real hoot! Nicloux’s deadpan mock thriller tacks from a rumor that the author had been kidnapped “by Al-Qaeda (or aliens)” during the book tour for his 2010 novel The Map and the Territory. (I watched it on Google Play, which mislabels it a “documentary”—much of it does seem to be improvised, and Houellebecq does seem to be speaking as himself, but credit Nicloux for the devious scenario and execution.) We see Houellebecq’s routine—smoking on the street and bumping into friends, smoking in the park and finding old coins, smoking by the window of his high-rise apartment and composing poetry, smoking at the piano with friends, smoking and drinking wine while dissing Mozart—until it’s interrupted by three thugs who put duct tape over his mouth, pack him into a green metal box, and take him to a small house in the hinterland surrounded by old cars and trucks and assorted junk.

The abductors turn out to be amiable fellows. They give Houellebecq lessons in boxing and Krav Maga. They ask him about writing: Do nothing until something comes, he tells them, adding that his own fiction is never autobiographical. He bonds with the grandmotherly woman of the house and writes her a poem. She asks him if he wants to watch pornography and at his request hires a twenty-one-year-old woman from the village to sleep with him. Except at mealtimes, Houellebecq is handcuffed and chained to a bed, constantly shouting for a lighter that his captors won’t let him keep handy. There’s a poignant scene when one of the kidnappers begins to weep as the four men discuss the children they never had. When Houellebecq is released on the roadside, he starts discussing politics with one of his captors (the burly Krav Maga practitioner, an IDF veteran):

HOUELLEBECQ: For me democracy is when the population proposes laws, for example, a petition, which are adopted or vetoed by the population, by referendum. Or it’s not a democracy, or even a parody. Europe’s true vocation is to make democracy impossible and install a government of experts.
KIDNAPPER: Europe bothers you?
HOUELLEBECQ: I’m against it. I’m against it for the reasons I cited. Democracy is the future. Europe is a regression. Elected representatives means no more democracy.
KIDNAPPER: We’re pretty free in France.
HOUELLEBECQ: I want there to be an insurrection.
HOUELLEBECQ: An insurrection. Brussels is a good place for a civil war.

Now we have Houellebecq’s novel of the insurrection, Serotonin. It is engrossing; it is cartoonishly violent; it is profane; it is perverse; it is now and then very funny. It is cloaked in a garment of melancholy that puts one in mind of walking for hours in a drenched hoodie after an autumn downpour. It is also frequently repulsive—more so than his previous novels, which haven’t exactly attracted the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. In France, where the gilets jaunes movement was kicking off, Serotonin was greeted—Houellebecq novels for better and worse are always greeted this way in France—as prophetic. In the present American context, it cannot be read without reference to white male despair, the specter of homicidal incels, and Trumpism. The last count is one Houellebecq has courted with an essay in Harper’s Magazine under the headline DONALD TRUMP IS A GOOD PRESIDENT, a boilerplate argument against American hegemony and in favor of Euroskepticism that drew more online flame than it actually threw. A classic troll. The same can’t be said of his novels.

Mark Van Yetter, Untitled, 2016, oil on paper, 16 1⁄2 × 12". Courtesy the artist and Bridget Donahue, NYC
Mark Van Yetter, Untitled, 2016, oil on paper, 16 1⁄2 × 12". Courtesy the artist and Bridget Donahue, NYC

Serotonin is a story of psychic descent and personal disintegration, with a bloody political interlude grafted between its narrator’s initial crack-up and his terminal plunge. Florent-Claude Labrouste is forty-six years old and a veteran of the revolving door between the public and private French agricultural bureaucracies. His life has reached an erotic dead end. He’s a good-looking man, so he tells us, but it is a false front: “I have demonstrated my inability to take control of my life, the virility that seemed to emanate from my square face with its clear angles and chiselled features is in truth nothing but a decoy, a trick pure and simple—for which, it is true, I was not responsible.” He’s had a string of girlfriends, makes a good living, rents a big Paris flat, owns a vacation home in Spain, and has a substantial inheritance from his deceased parents, who were the opposite of abusive. And yet . . .

His last girlfriend is Yuzu, “not only Japanese, but also young and sexy and from an eminent Japanese family, and who also mingled with the most advanced artistic circles in both hemispheres.” When we first meet her, Florent-Claude has picked her up at an airport in Spain, and in the car she puts on headphones and covers her eyes with a cloth soaked in exfoliating lotion. He has the impulse to drive the car off a cliff, but just before the plunge loses his nerve. Going for a beer in the fridge at their vacation flat, he says, “Get out of the way you fat slut.” It’s the most abusive behavior we see from Florent-Claude, if his reliability as a narrator can be trusted. Most of the people he meets, especially hotel clerks, seem to regard him as a sympathetic sad sack, not a psycho.

The contempt, toward Yuzu and himself, that’s festered in his mind stays mostly there—indeed, he considers murdering her by drugging her and tossing her out the window. (The feelings seem to be mutual, though we have no access to her thoughts, and barely hear her speak.) He has made the mistake of snooping on her computer and found videos of her attending orgies and engaging in bestiality. He has witnessed himself be cucked by a Doberman and a bull terrier: “After this canine mini gang-bang I interrupted my viewing; I was disgusted—particularly on behalf of the dogs—and at the same time I couldn’t conceal the fact that for a Japanese girl sleeping with a Westerner wasn’t far off copulating with an animal (at least from what I had been able to observe of their mentality).”

This material is misogynistic and racist and also fundamental to Florent-Claude’s state of mind. You’re not going to get a portrait of an incel (if that’s the right term for what Florent-Claude becomes—his impotence and loss of libido are at least in part a by-product of a new antidepressant he’s been prescribed) without such sentiments, though Houellebecq’s portrait is particularly acidic and will be, for some, unpalatably extreme. It’s worth noting that Yuzu’s job at a Japanese cultural center has involved putting on a show by a photographer “of naked girls covered with different repugnant animals like eels, octopuses, cockroaches, earthworms . . . In one video a Japanese girl caught the tentacles of an octopus coming out of a toilet bowl with her teeth.” The implication is that sexual liberation and globalization will saturate the culture with such perversities and poison the minds of men like Florent-Claude. After we are treated to a catalogue of his past heartbreaks, he will become an armed stalker of one of his ex-girlfriends, but as with his freeway suicide attempt he will lose his nerve before the fatal moment. It’s the sort of contemporary moral fable the culture seems to have wanted (and feared) Joker to be. Houellebecq has delivered it, and there’s no need to station armed guards in the bookstores.

In between, there is a sojourn in Normandy. Like the cosmopolitan American city-dweller who goes to the woods seeking tranquility and finds Confederate flags hanging under the fir trees and rifles no doubt lining the racks of neighboring cabins, Florent-Claude flees his job, Yuzu, and his flat, and in the countryside encounters different and more potent forms of alienation than the service charges and smoking bans that irritate him in Paris. (Many, many pages are devoted to his unending quest for a room where he is allowed to smoke. In Houellebecq’s previous novel, Submission, the narrator contemplates becoming a Catholic monk but declines because the monastery prohibits smoking. In this element, at least, his books are autobiographical.) There is a pedophile tourist living in the cabin next door, who flees the scene after Florent-Claude catches him filming his abuse of a local girl. There is Florent-Claude’s old friend from agricultural school, Aymeric, a man of aristocratic background who returned to the family château and its significant land holdings to raise cows. His wife has left him, taking their children, and EU farming quotas have ruined his dairy business. Florent-Claude tries to comfort him, tries to convince him he could salvage some novel way of using his land, find some new lover. They drink and listen to Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma (Aymeric calls it “the one with the cow” on the cover—both men love cows—but this is a mistake on Houellebecq’s part; Atom Heart Mother is the Floyd record with the cow on the cover) and shoot rifles in the yard (leisurely sessions that turn out to be radicalizing). Here Houellebecq conjures his desired insurrection, an armed confrontation between Aymeric and other local farmers and a convoy of trucks importing milk from elsewhere in the EU. The encounter is disastrous and futile, though its staging is diabolical and brilliant.

What does this insurrection have to do with Florent-Claude’s romantic failures and general despair? Are they each symptoms of globalization and neoliberalism? Houellebecq is never so crude as to assert direct connections. He is a diagnostician isolating side effects, shaking his head and offering no solace to the terminal patient. For three decades he’s been writing variations on the same novel, adjusting his antiheroes and political scenarios each time to evolving circumstances. What is missing from this novel is any element of grace. Submission is notorious for its near-future fantasy of France as a caliphate, but it is also a work reverent of the novel itself, its narrator a scholar of J. K. Huysmans. There is nothing in Serotonin that offers an analogous balm—not sex, not family, not cheese, not guns, not hotels, not television, not antidepressants, not even tobacco. Nothing is numinous. Nothing is redeemed. This, surely, is true to the experience of depression that Serotonin enacts. There’s no exit but death.

Christian Lorentzen is a writer living in New York.