Michel Houellebecq, the French novelist and career antagonist, delights to puncture metro-liberal orthodoxies and shock the reader with descriptions of internet pornography, pill-popping, sex tourism, the plight of the modern male and other of aspects of urban anomie. Though not for the faint-hearted, in France Houellebecq is admired for his journalistic gift of foresight. Submission (2015), his dystopian fantasia of a Saudi-funded Islamic France of the near future, was praised for anticipating the events in Paris at the office of Charlie Hebdo, while his latest novel, Serotonin, coincided with the emergence of the anti-metropolitan French agitators known as les gilets jaunes (Yellow Vests).


Published in France last January, Serotonin is narrated by a cantankerous 46-year-old, Florent-Claude Labrouste, who is “dying of sorrow”, according to his doctor. Ever since his parents killed themselves in a suicide pact on the eve of their fortieth birthday, life has become unutterably bleak for Labrouste, who finds himself bogged in acedia (“a state of listlessness or torpor, of not caring or not being concerned with one’s position in the world”) and sexual difficulties. A new generation anti-depressant called Captorix has finally done for his libido and left him in a worsening despair.


Increasingly depressed, Labrouste is “revolted by the pointlessness” of his job at the Ministry of Agriculture, where trade quotas have reduced bureaucrats to an “advanced state of exasperation”. To top it all, he hates his “ridiculous” first name Florent-Claude. What to do? As part of a scheme to disappear from life in general and from his feckless Japanese girlfriend Yuzu in particular, Labrouste quits his Eurocrat’s job in Paris (a city designed to “generate loneliness”) and embarks on a disjointed, nostalgia-tinged ramble through past sexual adventures, recollecting old conquests and old flames as he does so.



Moving backwards and forwards in time from 2001 to the present, Serotonin is calculated to cause huffy botheration, if not infuriate readers. Labrouste says he dislikes not only the Dutch (“Holland isn’t a country, it’s a business venture”) but Parisian “eco-friendly” bourgeoisie, along with non-smokers and artisanal Normandy cheeses. Only one of Labrouste’s women, Camille, is accorded a proper history and life of her own. A trainee vet in her mid-30s, Camille is commended for her concern for battery chickens as well as her youthful good looks. Yuzu, by contrast, is a “spider” feeding on Labrouste’s “vital fluids” and vacuously obsessed moreover with designer brands and labels. When Labrouste stumbles on a video of Yuzu having sex with a party of 15 young men, he resolves to ditch her. Having callously betrayed Camille in his earlier life, Labrouste now yearns to be reunited with her, and begins to stalk her and her four-year-old son, scoping them at a distance through a pair of binoculars.


In the course of his stalking, Labrouste returns to his native Normandy, where he calls on an old friend, Aymeric d’Harcourt-Olonde, a divorced (and now of course catatonically depressed) cattle farmer with an interest in firearms and 1970s progressive rock. From his dilapidated chateau littered with guns and Pink Floyd vinyl, Aymeric fights for the rights of local dairy farmers and shares their antipathy to free trade treaties and EU-driven polices that, we learn, have ruined local agri-industries. “Europe” is seen throughout as godless and cruel in its landscape and stranglehold of red tape; though the words gilets jaunes never appear, the movement’s grievance is felt.


Serotonin does not want for unsavoury characters, among them a paedophile birdwatcher who looks like a “German academic on sick leave”, and a GP who “looks more like a heavy-metal bass player than a doctor”. (A little of this sort of thing can go a long way.) We watch appalled as Labrouste drifts in his vintage Mercedes through a flat, technocratic France that “had become a neutral surface without relief or attraction”. Houellebecq’s remorselessly miserabilist view of modern life does at times weary, yet his observations on upscale gastronomy, gentrification and the depredations wrought by late capitalism are often oddly invigorating. An interesting sub-plot emerges on the subject of why French farmers are killing themselves “one by one, on their plots of land, without being noticed”, though the narrator’s puerile sexual fantasies quickly intrude, and the sense of gravitas is lost. Among the novel’s many other provocations is the proposal that General Franco be re-assessed as a “real giant” for his contributions to the development of mass tourism (“think of Benidorm! Think of Torremolinos!”…”)

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