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B : much of what can be/is expected from Houellebecq, but also surprising restraint
See our review for fuller assessment.
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The complete review's Review:
Serotonin is narrated by Florent-Claude Labrouste, forty-six when he begins his account.
He complains about his name, of course, in typical Houellebecqian fashion ("not only do I find the combination 'Florent-Claude' ridiculous, but I find each of its elements disagreeable in itself"), but it is a barely necessary marker, the character's interactions as he progresses on the journey chronicled in this account so limited that barely anyone has occasion or reason to address him, by name or otherwise, and we practically never see it employed; as so often with Houellebecq, Serotonin is an intensely self-focused narrative, dominated by the 'I'.
I have only ever been an inconsistent wimp and I'm now forty-six and I've never been capable of controlling my own life. In short, it seemed very likely that the second part of my life would be a flabby and painful decline, as the first had been.There's a strong fatalistic streak to Serotonin. Already early on, Labrouste suggests: "God had always disposed of me as he wished", and repeatedly he comments on others' downward spirals and falls as inevitable. To him it's clear:
Had he had a choice ? Does anyone have a choice ? I have my doubts on the matter.Yet despite the underlying fatalism, Serotonin is very much a novel of would-be action (albeit with an emphasis on would-be ...), Labrouste at least going through the motions of taking matters into his own hands, and acting. Of course, where that gets him .....
Labrouste does (literally) abandon Yuzu -- along with his apartment and job. He conveniently has enough money in the bank to live more or less comfortably for quite a while; he has no real personal ties -- friends -- and certainly his relationship with Yuzu is easily simply broken off. He also has few possessions: twenty years earlier, at the point of a similar rupture: "all of my earthy possessions could be contained in a suitcase", and he has accumulated little more since, leaving the scene with a suitcase and not a single personal memento; what little there was of accumulated past and experience: "was all on my MacBook Air, a thin paralleliped of brushed aluminium; my entire past weighed 1,100 grammes".
He first moves into a hotel in Paris -- itself a challenge, since one of his requirements is being able to smoke, and few establishments still permit that --, then travels to Normandy, before eventually returning to Paris where, after even his hold-out hotel stamps out all smoking, he buys himself and retreats into a small anonymous flat.
For all his effort at breaking with the past and moving on more or less unencumbered, Labrouste, in fact, is heavily weighed down by it. Much of his account is devoted to recollections of the past, especially of his longer, deeper relationships with women -- and the chances at traditional domestic happiness that he torpedoed (generally, by sleeping with another woman). He meets up with one former girlfriend, Claire, and then practically stalks another -- the great love of his life, Camille. While a drunken get-together with Claire serves as a quick reminder and wake-up call that she was way too damaged goods -- too much like him, in fact -- Camille, now a veterinarian with a small-town practice, still seems like unchanged perfection, reminding Labrouste of just how badly he blew it, back when.
Labrouste also seeks out a former schoolmate from their time at the French Agro, Aymeric d'Harcourt-Olonde -- who had been: "my only true friend" at the university. A true-blue-blood, whose family had vast holdings, Aymeric was the only one from their class that actually went into farming, rather than into agribusiness proper.
By the time Labrouste visits him, Aymeric is yet another broken man. His herd of three hundred cows is a money-loser -- albeit one he can easily afford, as he just sells off the family's land whenever a cash infusion is needed (though that's of course also a tradition-destroying, emasculating last resort) -- and his wife's ambitious plan to turn the old castle on the property into a fancy hotel has only resulted in a diminished plan involving bungalows; in any case, his wife and his two daughters have left him. Egged on some by Labrouste, Aymeric joins with the local farmers to protest the latest threats to local farming -- barely sustainable in a globalized economy and age -- , leading to a a dramatic call to action, and a brief stand-off with the authorities (quickly, catastrophically resolved).
Midway through the novel, Labrouste asks himself (as the reader likely also is wondering):
But why drag myself to past scenes ? as the poet said; I want to dream and not weep, he added as if one had the choice.It drives home yet again the sense of inevitability about everything in Labrouste's life: he simply can't do otherwise. But clearly it is also about self- and re-assessment, a mid-life crisis of sorts, or at least a point in the ongoing crisis that is his life at which he considers what is possible. So he also diagnoses:
Was I capable of being happy in solitude ? I didn't think so. Was I capable of being happy in general ? That's the kind of question, I think, that is best not asked.Dredging up the past reveals he had known great happiness, specifically in his promising relationship with Camille -- and it is to Camille and this possibility of happiness that he is drawn again. He seeks her out -- though keeping his distance -- observing her, then watching her creepily closely. He himself admits:
In fact, it's from that moment that my behaviour starts to escape me, that I am reluctant to assign meaning to it, and that it manifestly begins to part company from ordinary morality and from ordinary reason, which I thought I shared until then.Briefly, he considers actually shaping his own fate, of taking actions that will determine his future. He plans it out carefully and precisely, and while it's fairly harebrained -- it seems extremely unlikely things could play out exactly as he hopes -- it is at least decisive. Eventually, he comes to the point where he has to make his move; he has his finger on the trigger, as it were. His choice, then, -- his fate, of course -- however comes as no surprise.
Labrouste's journey is also marked by his use of -- reliance on -- Captorix, an anti-depressant he eagerly lets himself be prescribed. Among its side effects is impotence, and Labrouste's journey is also marked by his lack of arousal. He had enthusiastically engaged in a great deal of sex, but he doesn't seem to miss it much. (It's hard not to see this drug-induced impotence as something that he sees as a deserved punishment or penance, since it is a sexual transgression that led to the loss of the love of his life, Camille.)
Labrouste does repeatedly go on in considerable detail about sex, but tellingly the most involved are voyeuristic scenes, Labrouste watching on a screen and not involved himself. They include him coming across (well, seeking out) videos of Yuzu engaging in a variety of sexual acts, as well the videos a pederast was taking of an about ten-year-old girl. (The girl, at least, is not too obviously (physically) violated in the scenes he watches, but Yuzu does get it on way too intimately with a couple of dogs, as Houellebecq insists on at least breaking a few taboos.) Indeed, much of Serotonin is voyeuristic, its narrator an observer -- often through binoculars ... -- rather than actor; he chooses repeatedly to remain literally on the sidelines.
The Captorix seems to do its job -- clearly depressed ("I had no hopes and I was fully aware I had nothing to hope for"), Labrouste still long finds sufficient motivation to at least trudge along in one way or another -- but Houellebecq eventually also suggests another bio-chemical imbalance that is affecting Labrouste (leaving unclear, however, whether it is cause or effect): his doctor tells him that: "the quantities of cortisol that you're secreting are incredible" -- so incredible that:
I have the sense that you are, very simply, dying of sorrow.The fall-back on bio-chemical explanations (excuses), and then the balancing act with staying on or weening him off Captorix, seems a bit of an easy out, giving Labrouste the excuse he is looking for in not taking constructive action (like engaging with other human beings in any meaningful -- or just sexual -- way). Serotonin is very much a novel of resignation, and this just one more greater force that the character simply yields to.
Labrouste is hopelessly fated for this sad destiny; indeed, Houellebecq even brings the Almighty into the mix, with a sprinkling of mentions and then a final assessment by Labrouste that suggests a surprisingly strong religious -- and specifically Catholic -- world-view (rather at odds with especially the sexual activity and attitudes that are presented). Always also hovering over Labrouste, as a possible looming fate -- but also as an expression of free will -- is suicide, which he repeatedly addresses -- so also when traveling at the most suicidal time of the year, Christmas and New Year's, or when reassuring, for example, one of his landlords when he rents an out-of-the-way place that would be ideal for the act. Suicide figures prominently in his life and the story, too, most notably in the fact that his parents were a double-suicide, his father terminally ill, his mother unwilling to live without him
Houellebecq bites off a lot in Serotonin, but there's not quite enough chew. The story goes in a variety of directions, including in accounts of his various relationships, but rarely pushes far enough; as also with the story of the French farmers briefly organizing and taking a stand, Houellebecq builds up good narrative momentum, only for the episodes to rather fizzle out. Of course, this is appropriate for a narrator who, even though frequently on the move, is truly in no way going anywhere; as such the novel nicely reflects its protagonist. But ultimately Houellebecq offers too much lack of follow-through. He still manages to shock on the small scale, but draws back from taking the leap into the unthinkable -- even as he takes his story to the brink of it at one wonderful point.
Labrouste's tone and expression, an almost dead-pan world-weariness (with a well placed light comic touch) that makes listening to his disturbing opinions bearable, are typical of Houellebecq's characters, and works well here too. Labrouste is profoundly unsympathetic and it's hard to imagine anyone enjoying Labrouste's company (extreme alcoholic excess seems the only way Labrouste can put up with anyone, and vice versa); the most unbelievable thing about the novel is that several women were actually in love with him (unlike Yuzu, whose relationship with him seems entirely plausible, which is presumably why Houellebecq devotes so much space to that story at the beginning of the novel). But Houellebecq also humanizes him some, and while he can't make him sympathetic, or even make readers care much about his fate (which feels all so predetermined from the start in any case), Labrouste's frank openness (and willingness to admit to the worst in himself and others, in a way few people would) does make the character intriguing enough to make his roving -- physical and mental, in present and past -- interesting enough to follow.
Serotonin is a novel about contemporary white European males rendered impotent and the collapse of traditional order and hierarchies, the local bulldozed by the supranational, economic and social forces leaving a trail of the ruined (and of suicides) in their tracks, but it's also romantic novel. Labrouste had love, and he wonders whether it is possible for him again; as with its views on the state of the world and everything, much of the novel is surprisingly nostalgic -- with Labrouste clear-eyed enough, however, to realize that the past is lost and done for, for him and for the world.
Serotonin isn't quite successful, but there's enough to it -- more in the bits and pieces than the whole -- to make for a worthwhile read. And, yes, all the usual Houellebecqian baiting and provocation -- sexual, political, and piles of political incorrectness -- as well as the humor (and a few pushing-the-limits scenes) are also to be found.
- M.A.Orthofer, 11 September 2019
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French author Michel Houellebecq was born in 1958.
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