Sérotonine is the latest novel by France’s ageing enfant terrible Michel Houellebecq (pronounced well-BECK), with his hallmark provocations and ironic mood of existential despair and ennui about our decadent, alienated society.
Florent-Claude, forty-nine year old agricultural engineer, relates his self-destructive mid life crisis, and the women in his life. Their contributions to his sexual satisfaction include the usual cynical, graphic descriptions, but he also uncharacteristically muses over the meaning of love.
French agricultural policy features in the strongest part of the narrative, where an old friend is involved in a gripping episode of farmers protest gone wrong. Some commentators regard this as prescient Houellebecq anticipating the anti-government gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement of recent years in France.
Serotonin refers to Florent’s intake of anti-depressants to stabilise his moods. But these are exacerbated by a dire need during his itinerant phases of getting hotel rooms where smoking is still allowed. A quintessential French issue which made me smile, but it may not be meant ironically, as the author’s smoking habit is central to his persona.
Nevertheless I began to wonder whether the novel is self-parody. By adding new shock tactics to his established repertoire, with gratuitous scenes of bestiality and pedophilia, he maintains his bad boy reputation. My first Houellebecq novels were Atomised and Platform, both published twenty odd years ago. Then he used swinger clubs and sex tourism in Thailand to shock, and illustrate corrupted modern life.
My recommendation of Serotonin is conditional as I read it in French, but hopefully in translation his droll descriptions of the depredations of neo-liberal, post-modern society will reward you too. Fun for all the family!
Actually, if you’re new to Houellebecq, you could also try Submission. Published in January 2015, almost the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the provocative story relates the rise of an imagined Muslim presidential candidate in France. Regarded by many as anti-Islamic, it created huge controversy in the French commentariat, and was an instant best-seller. I found it convincing, which may be the test of a good novel.