SEROTONIN by Michel Houellebecq (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 320 pp., $27)
Michel Houellebecq’s inflammatory new novel “Serotonin” opens with a scientific investigation of brain chemistry. Neurotransmitters such as serotonin regulate mood and emotions. When in short supply, serotonin can engender such disorders as depression.
Published in France last January and translated into English by Shaun Whiteside in November, “Serotonin” is old-fashioned in a sense that is now regarded as “problematic.” Reminiscent of Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s “Journey to the End of the Night,” Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” and Nikolai Gogol’s “Dead Souls,” “Serotonin” centers on a solitary, disillusioned man searching for meaning. He does so while basking in hedonistic perversions, airing scattered social grievances and raging at regrettable memories.
Florent-Claude Labrouste, an agricultural engineer and confirmed misanthrope, feels as if he is “dying of sadness.” He fixates with an almost fetishistic zeal on even the most trivial failings of the contemporary world. His cynical musings give way to an abandonment of decorum, even as he desperately seeks salvation. “A civilization just dies of weariness, of self-disgust,” ruminates Labrouste.
Houellebecq, through Labrouste, is gleefully nihilistic and dismissive of political correctness, seemingly courting a challenge, comfortable with his work’s inevitable controversy, refreshingly assured of ineluctable scandal. The 63-year-old author is inclined to push buttons. His 2015 “Submission” imagined France under Muslim rule in a manner that suggested such a takeover would lead to a dystopian nightmare for both Christians and atheists.
In this too-precious culture where writers are hamstrung in their efforts to write honestly without fear of political reprisal, Houellebecq dares to delve into the subjectivity of a brutal, toxic masculinity with arresting authority.
Labrouste may be a chauvinist, but he is also an energetic thinker — personable, funny, undeniably flawed, but human and alive, even though he longs for death. Despite his misgivings with every type of person and institution, his disgruntlement is enjoyable, even understandable when contextualized by his tragic life. Lamenting a string of failed relationships and his parents’ double suicide upon his father’s brain cancer diagnosis, Labrouste finds room for other concerns: environmentalism, ethics, pornography, history, economics, politics, the state of art and the author, mortality, the promise of nature, the inherent sociopathic nature of society, rock music from the 1960s and 1970s. His mind is indefatigable, if not bitter. “Society was a machine for destroying love,” grouses Labrouste.
With his sloughing off an advanced society and retreat into nature, Labrouste is something of a dark, oversexed Walden. He finds refuge in a countryside left destitute by European agricultural policies and rampant globalization, both of which threaten agrarian lifestyles. He takes up the struggles of the working class, disenfranchised farmers, and with them pines for a simpler, smaller space free of the impositions of a too-large world corrupted by the postmodern era. Labrouste soon turns to ecoterrorism and metaphors for the body — human, political, and geographical. Houellebecq captures the spirit of a misguided, rash revolutionary, crusading on behalf of free trade and local farming.
Labrouste disintegrates as the militaristic aggressions mount and his downward spiral finds myriad new targets. He turns on Proust, Goethe and Mann, those sacred literary inventors of modern man. He levels accusations that only a narcissist closing in on 50 and contemplating suicide could make: the great scribes were shallow, obsessed with youth and beauty at the cost of morality, friendship and intellect. “So, the whole of the world’s culture was pointless,” Labrouste decides upon interpretation of the authors’ priorities.
In the end, both Labrouste and Houellebecq reveal their Christ-like martyr complexes. “Serotonin” too reveals itself, as a primal, ego-wounded roar at a civilization that no longer prizes a certain demographic — straight white men — as top dog. Betrayed by the culture and biology alike.