Too Disturbing

On Michel Houellebecq’s Serotonin

Michel Houellebecq. Serotonin. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019. (Translated from the French by Shaun Whiteside.)

Midway through a recent talk at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Michel Houellebecq pauses and distractedly pulls at a piece of his wispy, shoulder-length hair. He is in the middle of answering a question about the idea of happiness, which, directed at the disaffected French novelist, might seem a bit like turning to Schopenhauer for a nugget of self-help. (“The mechanism of unhappiness,” his latest novel explains, “was the strongest of all.”) Houellebecq starts and restarts his answer a few times, until he ventures an oblique declaration that photography, of all things, was perhaps a reckless invention. “We can imagine that this child is happy,” he says, referring to a photo of himself as a boy, beaming and slightly bucktoothed, shown at the start of the talk. “That’s the disturbing thing actually with this picture. Maybe that’s why we shouldn’t take pictures.” Houellebecq is prone to provocation, and as far as these stray remarks go, this rates as rather mild. (Consider, in comparison, his comments about Islam which, in 2001, got him sued for hate speech by civic-rights groups in France.) Still, why should photography come under Houellebecq’s even idlest scrutiny? “Trop troublant,” he says. It is too disturbing.

For a writer—especially one who serves up scenes of bestiality and pedophilia—to declare anything human “trop troublant” is somewhat jarring, not just because of Houellebecq’s own knack for converting the sordid into the sardonic. Houellebecq’s amateur photography has shown at Palais de Tokyo and Manifesta. His characters, in an afterimage of their author’s own dabbling, often take and look at photographs. Michel in Elementary Particles breaks down over a photo of himself in primary school (“it seemed unthinkable to Michel that he was that boy”). An artist makes engrossing, macro photos of Michelin maps depicting provincial France that are declared “more interesting than the territory,” in that novel’s eponymous show. And Houellebecq’s latest book, Serotonin, published in the US in November, concludes with more than one thousand snapshots from the narrator’s life glued directly to his white-box studio apartment, an impromptu exhibition for one.

It is in fact the final worldly act—besides of course that final act—of the suicidal Florent-Claude Labrouste, yet another Houellebecqian antihero injured by the entropic motion of modern life. Florent is the age at which Nerval and Baudelaire died (46), can fit his life possessions into a single suitcase, and carries out the last months of his dim and antidepressant-fueled existence in smoking-permitted hotel rooms in Paris and the countryside. When even the final redoubt for smokers (Mercure hotels) inevitably updates its policy, Florent settles in the vast anonymous housing projects of the thirteenth arrondissement, in what will be his last apartment. There he sets about constructing his photo wall as a “task physically within my range,” as spiked cortisol levels inch him toward morbid obesity. (The official diagnosis proclaimed by a GP—who, saint-like, according to Florent, also prescribes Thai prostitutes for combating loneliness—is that he is “dying of sorrow.”) It’s within range, too, of his disposition, as Florent tends toward the passive and wistful. This is a character who meets the mean operations of the world with the same resignation with which one meets, having no other choice, a birth name. (Florent-Claude finds his own rather too effeminate for his jawline.)

From here, one by one, Serotonin rehashes the stories of Florent’s scotched relationships—a libido’s “farewell ceremony,” Houellebecq calls it. And, by the end of the novel, when Florent lives in absolute solitude, the ex-lovers return to his final photo wall, along with other banal snapshots, which he admits do not exude “any kind of beauty or meaning.” Florent deems it, unsentimentally, a “Facebook wall” reengineered back into the analog world. But of course the reader knows that a social media user rarely preserves, and more often scrubs, evidence of an ex’s existence from their online life . . . trop troublant. Some memories are too difficult to square with hindsight, as is the smile of one of Florent’s great loves, Camille, in a photo taken in a forest near Clécy, long before he has betrayed her. To Florent, it “seems crazy today to tell myself that I was the source of her happiness”—the idyllic image that comes back to afflict. As the narrator later reflects, with unbidden sincerity: “It isn’t the future but the past that kills you, that comes back to torment and undermine you.” While staring at the picture wall, Florent describes time entirely flattened: “My memory of dates [of the photographs] was . . . vague, but dates were unimportant; everything that had happened had happened for all eternity. . . .” He continues, layering this insight with a tragic double knowledge: “But it was an eternity that was closed and inaccessible.”

In the novel—Houellebecq’s seventh—this disjuncture between the image, however illusory, of a happy past and a hollowed-out present haunts the narrator, and modern-day France, conjuring up political energies that are by turns profoundly revolutionary and profoundly reactionary. The map is no longer just more interesting than the territory; it is the blueprint that testifies to how very far one has strayed. In Houellebecq’s reckoning with populist ideology, and its radical or delusive intimations of a lost golden age, the novel fashions political and personal indignation as a futile project of historical restoration. This is a story of trying to usher forms of love and labor, Houellebecq’s perennial subjects, back into the past in order to arrive in a more livable future—and utterly failing.

Love and labor here assume the traditional forms of marriage and milk farming, both of which are besieged—the former by the dizzying array of romantic temptations in the city, the latter at the hands of the EU, whose trade policies favor cheaper imported dairy products from Brazil and Ireland. That these traditions are in decline does not stop the narrator from pursuing either, in backward retreat, sometimes farcically, always fatalistically. On the first matter, marriage, Florent attempts to reconstitute a family with the old flame Camille, who possesses the special Houellebecqian virtue of being in her mid-thirties while appearing every bit the pristine 19-year-old she was when they first met. Florent’s plan to win back the girl? To take out her 4-year-old son by another, now absent, man with a rifle—family planning by way of a Steyr Mannlicher carbine. To Florent, this solution presents itself with impeccable logic. “Was it imaginable that Camille would endanger that perfect symbiotic relationship that she had with her son for me? And was it imaginable that he, the child, would agree to share his mother’s affection with another male?” He concludes: “It was him or me.” For a few suspenseful pages and thereafter, Florent lodges a Laschian defense of romantic love as a haven in a heartless world, wherein love can exist only in retreat from society. Alternative family arrangements are “postmodern, unworldly and dedicated to the ABC+ and the ABC++ economic groups.” Christian love is a compassionate impulse beyond him. (That is, until the last scene when Florent proclaims, half manic rambling, half transcendent sermonizing, that he is dying for the sins of the hard-hearted). Socialist schemes are whimsical. (“Money went to money and kept company with power, that was the final word in social organization.”)

The way forward would have to be backward into a kind of “marital model” that “had somehow been destroyed.” The Lasch comparison only goes so far, then—Houellebecq is better at evoking social theories than explaining the vexing “somehow” of historical change. In Serotonin, history takes the form of generational juxtaposition, between, for instance, Florent and his mother and father, who are deemed by the second page, “excellent parents in every respect,” a distinction nearly unprecedented in Houellebecq’s oeuvre. In fact, Florent’s parents have died side by side in a suicide pact on their marital bed and are buried together in a shared coffin, conjoined in a morbid echo of The Symposium’s melding together of lovers’ bodies. Back then, suicide pacts; today, contingency plans.

Milk has gone the way of marriage. The dairy farmer Aymeric d’Harcourt-Olonde, who counts as Florent’s only real friend from his agronomy school days, makes for the perfect antimodernist stand-in, as he looks back on a grandiose agrarian heritage and forward to exigent commercial pressures and fails to resolve the difference—unless, that is, through a farmers’ insurrection and (again) a bullet to the head. La Manche, the region in Normandy where Aymeric lives, has, in fact, been visited by an epidemic of farmer suicides set off by dairy price-reductions. (Notably, Houellebecq last made headlines in the US for his Harper’s article “Donald Trump Is a Good President,” which mistakenly congratulated Americans on their protectionist measures against free trade.) For poor Aymeric, the demise of his multiple-generation dairy farm coincides with the demise of his marriage. His wife Cécile has left him for a world-class musician who stayed in one of the family’s holiday bungalows and even played on Aymeric’s generations-old Bösendorfer baby grand. Florent explains Aymeric’s Book of Job:

[Aymeric] had simply wanted to be happy and had devoted himself to a rustic dream of durable, high-value production, and to Cécile, but Cécile had turned out to be a fat slut excited by life in London with a high-society pianist; and the European Union had also been a fat slut with that business about milk quotas. . . .

Such criticism is hardly unique to Cécile. Indeed, infidelity of a sort always figures near the heart of the plot. The broken promises of lovers, the eroded social trusts between economic elites and insurrectionary dregs, the decay of the body in middle age: at each of its focal points, Serotonin takes aim at critical betrayals. The “fat slut” by the end of the novel is just as much the flabby Florent, as he wallows in his own self-professed pattern of infidelity. He is an agronomist whose adroit reports and knowledge of the scientific names of “spontaneous vegetation in the urban setting” have done nothing to quell the winds of global trade. He is a romantic convinced that only through some act of “mak[ing] a woman happy” might life be, if not redeemed, then at least rendered tolerable, but who also reliably strays from the women he loves. (Florent cheats on his true loves, Kate and Camille, with a Brazilian “who would forget me the day after she got back to São Paulo” and a Jamaican or Barbadian woman—he can’t even bother to recall which.) He is a Parisian bourgeois who watches cooking shows and appreciates menus in which “the names of dishes [were] combined with meaningful contextualization,” while ridiculing his eco-friendly neighbors, not to mention all of Paris, a machine for destroying love, he says. At least, Florent cannot betray his creeds or ideology, for he has none to offer.

Houellebecq, on the other hand, delivers many provocative claims. The novel’s exploration of infidelity, specifically on the romantic front, doubles as a restless assessment of human freedom—its wishes and discontents. Houellebecq sets Serotonin in a familiar universe in which—per another French thinker, the nineteenth-century utopian Charles Fourier—human freedom is geared primarily toward infinite, revolving romantic possibilities: eros’s own free market.

Fourier would have organized social units into erotic “phalanxes” of up to 1,620 individuals with the aim of liberating sexual minorities (sodomites, fetishists, and flagellants, among others). Each member of the phalanx would be guaranteed a “sexual minimum” administered by a Court of Love, doling out sexual favors to the elderly, the poor, the disfigured, all of those in need. These sexual philanthropists represented, in Fourier’s words, a “class of strong and refined individuals who know how to subordinate love to the dictates of honor, friendship, and the affections independent of pleasure.”

It is almost impossible for a French person to write about the intersection of utopian social organization and eros without evoking Fourier’s theories, and Houellebecq hints at being well-versed in them alongside much of nineteenth-century social theory. His first novel riffs on Nietzsche’s famous evocation: “consider the cattle. . .” in “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life.” The Map and the Territory doubles as an exploration of Ruskinian devotion to craft and organic society. In the same novel, Houellebecq’s brutal and buffoonish autofictional self-portait turns flattering only when reciting the titles on his bookshelf, “there was an astonishing number of books by social reformers of the nineteenth century: the best known like Marx, Proudhon, and Comte, but also Fourier, Cabet, Saint-Simon, Pierre Leroux, Owen, Carlyle . . .” Apart from this teasing glimpse into the nonfictional Houellebecq’s library, the same novel features his most direct disquisition on Fourier, several paragraphs delivered by a usually reticent architect, the protagonist’s father concluding with an apparent dismissal: “There’s a lot of rubbish in Fourier’s work, and overall it’s almost unreadable; there is, however, still something to be drawn from it.”

That “something” has to do with the relationship between free love and freely chosen labor, and where that relationship breaks down. The architects of the European Union have been no less focused on realizing a vision of various 19th century utopias, but, as Houellebecq has consistently maintained ever since his first novel’s Lovecraftian description of supermarkets, the result has been a meaningless consumer hellscape. The fourteen different kinds of hummus at a G20 grocery store are matched by at least as many sexual temptations at any given time in the city. “Did we yield to the illusion of individual freedom, of an open life, of infinite possibilities?” Florent asks at the end of Serotonin. The answer is yes: The flip side of the neoliberal is the neo-libertine. (“[I]n a sense we had returned to the nineteenth century, when libertinism was reserved for a composite aristocracy: a mixture of birth, luck and beauty.”) Under conditions of inequality, Fourier’s free-for-all erotic phalansteries exist as a nightmare of grotesque realism, and that’s how Houellebecq evokes them: a world of temptation and titillation that leads ultimately to nothing but crushing isolation. For those born with “birth, luck and beauty,” like Florent, Paris offers “harmonic orgies” (Fourier’s charming phrase) in spades.

But whereas we may live in Fourier’s romantic universe, we did not inherit his related theories of work. Houellebecq knows this: “Fourier’s real subject, the one which interests him above all else, isn’t sex, but the organization of production,” says the architect in The Map and the Territory. Fourier identified precisely where the line between amorous passions and professional vocation thins. Love was a natural analogue to work, “proportioned” to “attractions,” in Fourier’s language, in which every person pursued passions untrammeled by social restrictions. Labor was no curse. Even the most repugnant jobs in society could be made, in Fourier’s phrase, “attractive.” Little boys who loved dirt would work as, what else, but little trash men, as with every person entitled to do what he or she loved and so pleased in contributing to and building society without controverting autonomous whim. So it was with the stray yearnings of the human heart—permissiveness and the general welfare meeting in idyllic harmony. Love would pervade every social relation in Fourier’s scheme of harmonious anarchism, eliminating both capitalistic competition and frustrated desire.

But Florent wanders around instead a heartsick Fourierist, encountering people with no work, let alone work they love: a failed actress, a corporate law defector, dairy farmers in rebellion, apricot producers in their twilight before the Argentinian apricots arrive. Instead of generating meaningful vocations, the EU has created conditions, for many, that prove untenable for labor (cue the gilets jaunes) and a property regime that rewards, with infinite largesse, the children of the rich (nothing exotic to us on this side of the Atlantic). So it is for Florent’s ex, the failed actress Claire, who scrapes by in a lavish flat she has inherited (“A single property purchase enabled her father to earn so much more than mine had in forty years of struggle”). The Marxist spirit of to each according to his needs may survive in at least one last stronghold: the traditional family unit of the super-rich. Meanwhile for the rest, it is vacuous, bullshit jobs, “forty years of struggle,” taking place, as does Houellebecq’s first novel Extension du Domaine de la Lutte (1994), across empty, gloomy office spaces. Though now in Serotonin there are not even offices, as Europe purges itself of low-skilled jobs “that had previously helped to keep life a little less unpleasant,” condemning the population to mass unemployment. The apricot producers of southern France don’t stand a chance against the fleet of MBAs—“the idea of ‘graduate business studies’ was in my eyes a desecration of the very idea of study”—negotiating international deals and “ready to die for free trade.” Like Florent, the French farmers will disappear one by one, not on account of depthless self-loathing, but rather as part of a “secret, invisible social plan.” With this insider’s knowledge, Florent counsels Aymeric to find a Moldovan or Cameroonian or Laotian woman to escape this bleak fate. But miniskirts, the unvarying uniform of Houellebecq’s women, are cheap compensation for the ravages of multinationals, one of which Florent has worked for (Monsanto), let alone the monotony of modern urban life.

Certainly, Houellebecq opens himself up to being called a reactionary romantic, or even an agrarian fascist. In the US, Aymeric’s cry will resonate more with the farmers’ plight in the late-nineteenth century than today’s industrial and factory agricultural producers. Even a reader sensitive to the maladies of our economic system might be put in mind of Randall Jarrell’s witticism, cautioning against single-minded complaint: “People who live in a Golden Age go around complaining how yellow everything looks.”

But Houellebecq surely knows this. There is as much the possibility of Florent blasting his way back into the past as there is the possibility of an archetypal Fourierist society in the future. The little white scored serotonin tablet that Florent takes every morning will not restore the happiness he once knew as a man in love. Images of past happiness, of failed love, of outmoded labor are disturbing precisely because they stir the hope of recapturing lost time: Florent’s reaching back to Camille and the Clécy forest, or else to Kate and the northern light on the Baltic Sea. Houellebecq does not describe all of these photos that line the walls in the final apartment. But the reader knows the catalogue by now. Claire: “clearly fucked,” sunk into alcoholism. Marie-Hélène: an anorexic who lives on flax seeds and green tea and suffers psychosis. Camille: in maternal retreat from the world. Kate: disappeared to Uganda, “disappointed in Westerners, but most of all in [Florent].” The photo wall is a collage of atomized lives, each preserved in a separate snapshot. In the English translation, the fated window Florent will jump out is called a ‘picture window,’ as if it were Florent’s own final frame, one quite unlike the plangent wood of a shared coffin, free-floating and backlit by regrets.

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