Failure to launch

By Michel Houellebecq
320 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $27.

Michel Houellebecq is one of those rare writers whose latest work I consistently bump to the top of my increasingly endless “to read” pile. I can’t think of any writer as prescient as Houellebecq or who writes about current issues with as much aplomb.

Houellebecq’s subjects seem to reflect the new political reality in Europe and, increasingly, the globe. The “everyman” his books depict war against the EU and feel increasingly victimized by globalization. The most vulgar insult a narrator in a Houellebecq novel might level at you is the word “elitist”, and while this may make his protagonists sound akin to Trump voters in my own country, rest assured that Houellebecq’s are far better read, citing, as they often do, Proust and Sartre, Thomas Mann and the French novelist Joris-Karl Huysman (among others).

So while my politics are about as far away from the right as you can get, there is nevertheless an undeniable draw I feel with the subjects raised in Houellebecq’s novels. He is truly unafraid to prod the dark underbelly of whatever civilization-threatening issue Europe — and to an extent, the world — is currently undergoing. 

Houellebecq’s previous novel, Submission, touched on the issue of immigration and, more specifically, the question of whether Islam is compatible with European values. “Submission” famously hypothesized that France’s 2022 election would pit Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right National Front, against a Muslim candidate. In Houellebecq’s version, the Muslim wins, thus changing the face of France, and Europe, forever. 

Houellebecq and his prediction featured on the cover of the French satirical weekly “Charlie Hebdo” the week Islamic fundamentalists stormed that newspaper’s office and killed a dozen of its staff. 

Houellebecq’s latest novel, “Serotonin”, tackles the “gilets jaunes” or “yellow vests” movement that began in France in October 2018 as a protest against tax increases levied by French President Emmanuel Macron’s government. Along the way, Houellebecq tackles globalization and EU regulations. The novel culminates, ultimately, in a farmers’ strike that ends in tragedy. 

Reading “Serotonin” you’re never left in any doubt that Houellebecq wrote it. It bears his signature on every page. It also features his trademark narrator. 

This, in the end, is why I cannot give “Serotonin” much of an endorsement. While the topic is new, and interesting, everything else feels the same. Houellebecq’s narrator is the same as the narrator of his novels PlatformThe Map and the Territory, and the aforementioned Submission

Think of a bitter, middle-aged white man, angry at the world — in particular how it’s changing — and reflecting, far too often in my opinion, on failed love affairs (on the sex, most particularly). Add in a general feeling of purposelessness, and a frustratingly high level of apathy, and you have your Houellebecq narrator. 

It’s navel-gazing of the most tiresome sort. Houellebecq is a fearless, immensely skilled writer, but in “Serotonin” I often found myself wishing that his narrator would forget about his dick long enough to actually focus on the topic at hand. Perhaps that was wishful thinking, because what we are left with instead in “Serotonin” is a lethargic lament on the end of democracy, civilization, and humanity itself. 

Like the narrator’s flaccid penis, which we are reminded countless times cannot sustain an erection on account of anti-depressants and the narrator’s general sense of apathy, “Serotonin” never gains liftoff. Any pleasure derived is subsumed by a sense that we’ve heard this all before and, as a result, nothing resembling a climax ever arrives.

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