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Serotonin: A Novel, by Michel Houellebecq (2019)

Serotonin: A Novel
by Michel Houellebecq
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 309 pages, $19

Houellebecq, like most great writers, created his own career arc. He started out by illustrating the emptiness of the West through its tendency to repeat procedure and method without attention to results, since our only need now is to satisfy some system, contract, or behavioral norm.

He then satirized the resulting emptiness, which is what one would expect when a group of individualistic Simians gather and, blind to everything but their own pursuit of power, ignore the foundations and structure of civilization and existential alertness that make life worth living.

Finally, Houellebecq connects the emptiness to the cure, with his book about someone who is “dying of sadness” so takes anti-depressants, only to find out that muting the sadness does not remove the emptiness which is the cause of the sadness.

In contrast, Houellebecq conjures up a Christ-like aristocratic figure who, in self-sacrifice, transcends the meaningless void. In so doing, despite being self-destructive, he becomes the only character in the novel to experience any kind of sense of purpose.

Everyone else, like most of us in modernity, seems to exist by simply reacting to the need for money, food, housing, and some Narrative of our own to describe our lives as the best possible variant of what was offered, like products on a shelf (what Tom Wolfe calls the Fiction Absolute).

His characters drift through an absence of context, structure, and most of all, purpose, calling to mind the antithesis of their crisis (Nietzsche: “My formula for happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal.”) which is seen in those who still strive for something.

I had always felt within myself that my parents’ conjugal happiness was out of reach to me, first of all because my parents were strange people — uncomfortable on this planet, who could hardly serve as an example for real life — but also because I felt that that marital model had somehow been destroyed; my generation had put an end to it, well, not my generation — my generation was incapable of destroying, even less of rebuilding, anything — let’s say the previous generation, yes, the previous generation was certainly at fault; either way, Camille’s parents, as an ordinary couple, represented an accessible example, an immediate, powerful, and strong example. (166)

Very few do so however. The novel opens with agricultural engineer (bureaucrat) Florent-Claude Labrouste, as always an analogue for Houellebecq and his own experience translated to a more obedient educational and career path, resulting in a person adrift in middle age with money but no purpose.

Almost all of Houellebecq’s protagonists fit this profile. They are stuck in the perpetual adolescence of modernity, dating women without an intent to really take it anywhere, regretful of the past but impotent to address it, having plenty of money but not enough to escape, and of course, burdened with existential doubt, depression, and misery.

As Labrouste says, he finds that his sadness increases to the point where he believes it will kill him. As the novel goes on, we find that his actions suggest that perhaps he wishes that something would kill him, just to end the tedium and pointlessness leading to a misery of confusion and emptiness.

He finds himself surrounded by those who, like the antidepressants he takes, want to remove sources of obligation and worry by removing any care about anything other than his immediate circumstances. Leaving behind his normal life, he satirizes their suggestions with his actions, namely retreating to a hotel and living as if he were about to die.

That said, for now I felt no desire, something which many philosophers had judged to be an enviable state, or at least that was my impression; the Buddhists, by and large, were on the same wavelength. But other philosophers, as well as all psychologists, considered an absence of desire to be pathological and unhealthy. After a month’s stay at the Hótel Mercure, I still felt unable to engage in that classic debate. (78)

Like all Houellebecq books, Serotonin: A Novel spans the older French tradition and the postmodern, having as much to credit to Louis-Ferdinand Céline as Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, William S. Burroughs, or William Gibson, whose Pattern Recognition explores similar themes.

In these novels, a central metaphor explains the journey of the character through a wasteland toward clarity. Serotonin, the neurotransmitter regulated by anti-depressants, serves here as a metaphor and parable for the human condition in modernity.

When he feels sadness, Labrouste undertakes a regimen of antidepressants, knowing that it will cost him his sexual potency. Instead, he finds that it simply accelerates his decline, because his sadness consists of a lack of connection to anything and anyone beyond himself, not sadness-in-itself.

Men in general don’t know how to live: they have no true familiarity with life, and never feel entirely at ease in it, so they pursue different projects, more or less ambitious and more or less grandiose — generally speaking of course, they fail and reach the conclusion that they would have been better off just living, but as a rule by that point it’s too late. (148)

Through his attempts to evade connection to anything and his pursuit of the promise of a life with antidepressants, namely one in which happiness and sadness are made equal and therefore equally unthreatening, Labrouste finds himself touring a ruined world.

He encounters the ghosts of failed past loves whose affection still holds promise for him that is only muted by his apathy, the impossibility of affection in a world where people use others for their own importance, and finally, an old friend of aristocratic heritage who longs for purpose in an empty world.

No one likes spoilers, and you will find none here, but to say that Houellebecq masterfully orchestrates a collision between apathy and thymos — the quest for life to have meaning through our works of good — emerging unanticipated from the fatalism and energyless repetition, is to understate.

Serotonin: A Novel continues the conversation that Houellebecq is having not just with his readers, but the West. We now know, having followed him thus far, that we have crashed, and that our collapse comes from a lack of inner drive toward goodness.

As the ancient analysis of civilization downfall states:

When discord arose, then the two races were drawn different ways: the iron and brass fell to acquiring money and land and houses and gold and silver; but the gold and silver races, not wanting money but having the true riches in their own nature, inclined towards virtue and the ancient order of things. There was a battle between them, and at last they agreed to distribute their land and houses among individual owners; and they enslaved their friends and maintainers, whom they had formerly protected in the condition of freemen, and made of them subjects and servants; and they themselves were engaged in war and in keeping a watch against them.

We are trying to get back to that state of “true riches in their own nature, inclined towards virtue and the ancient order of things.” We do not yet know how, but Houellebecq attempts to light our path with moments of clarity in a swirling miasma of false signal echo from our collective mental state.

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