It would seem the novelist is more interested in social diagnosis than political cure. In its interview, Valeurs Actuelles said Houellebecq “lives the paradox of being one of the most-read and least listened-to figures of our time.” But what exactly is Serotonin telling us? As with Houellebecq’s earlier novels, Serotonin is suffused with a nostalgic longing for an unattainable past—before the European Union, before the euro limited the economic sovereignty of member states, driving French farmers to despair and worse, and before the sexual revolution seemed to put individual pleasure before family duty.
Houellebecq has always been provocative, especially in his depictions of women. With Serotonin, this treatment flies decisively against the prevailing winds. I’m curious how Serotonin will be received when it appears in English. (It’s scheduled to be published in Britain this fall and in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux next year.) Pretty much every female character in the novel is described by her blow-job skills; the protagonist leaves his girlfriend when he discovers she’s involved in orgies with animals; he has an affair with a black university student because he’s drawn to the young woman’s ass, as he puts it.
I was struck recently when an interviewer on French public radio remarked that Houellebecq “seems to have missed #MeToo”—referring to the movement less as a shorthand for women fighting against sexual harassment, than for women more broadly being considered fully-formed human beings. The host’s interlocutor, Nelly Kaprièlian, a literary critic at the indie French weekly magazine Les Inrockuptibles who’s written widely and thoughtfully on Houellebecq over the years, responded that, in her view, the novelist’s greatest flaw is the weakness of his female characters.
Though pretty terrible on women, Houellebecq is better on economics. The narrator of Serotonin is hyper-aware of product names and doesn’t seem to find happiness among the 20 brands of hummus available at his local supermarket, a message that consumer society is spiritually unfulfilling. He also remarks at one point on the fact that some Parisians can earn more money renting out their inherited apartments than they would by having actual jobs. The tension between inherited wealth and generated income is one of the key questions for the French economy today.
In Serotonin, power and powerlessness—emotional, sexual, political, economic—are big motifs. “Is he a visionary or a cynic?” Le Figaro wrote in a front-page editorial that praised the novel and called Houellebecq’s books “the symptoms of the innumerable ills that are eating away at us.” A radio program on France Culture dedicated to Serotonin asked if Houellebecq was “an anti-modern writer or a modern guru?” In Le Monde, Bruno Viard, a literature professor, wrote that Houellebecq might be categorized as a reactionary, but was in fact more ambiguous. “Houellebecq is fundamentally anti-liberal—unlike the left, which is anti-liberal in economics but liberal in morality, and the right, which is the opposite. So he’s unclassifiable,” Viard wrote.
Other French critics have commented on Houellebecq’s evolution from the darling of left-wing magazines like Les Inrockuptibles to that of far-right ones like Valeurs Actuelles. But Houellebecq has captured something in his trajectory from the alt-weekly to the alt-right. It’s not so much that his views have changed, but that the political landscape around him has changed in ways that reflect his outlook. Maybe he is a visionary after all. And his is a grim vision indeed.