An uncanny gift for prophecy — the genius of Michel Houellebecq

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

The backdrop of Michel Houellebecq’s novel is by now well established. In this — his eighth — the bleak, essentially nihilistic nature of life is once again only relieved by equally nihilistic humour and sex. From the opening of Serotonin it is clear that we are in safe Houellebecqian hands. About the new anti-depressant that the narrator has been prescribed: ‘The most undesirable side effects most frequently observed in the use of Captorix were nausea, loss of libido and impotence. I have never suffered from nausea.’

There are also those volcanic side explosions which are occasionally mistaken for bigotry by people who don’t recognise that Houellebecq suffers just one bigotry, which is species disgust. The Dutch get it early and twice from the narrator of Serotonin — ‘a race of opportunist polyglot people’.‘Holland isn’t a country, it’s a business at best.’ The narrator of Serotonin is a typical creation of the author, which is to say essentially indistinguishable from Michel Houellebecq.

Florent-Claude Labrouste is a man in his late forties whose parents have killed themselves in a suicide pact. He dislikes his name, has no friends, works in the Ministry of Agriculture and hates Paris, where he lives. Mentioning his diesel 4×4 he says: ‘I mightn’t have done much good in my life, but at least I contributed to the destruction of the planet.’

His girlfriend, for whom he feels nothing but disgust and contempt, is Japanese. He discovers that she has been cheating on him in orgies, though is neither surprised nor even bothered by the extremity of the details. Finally he chooses to leave her, resign from his job, walk out of his rented flat and do something else. ‘Clearing my office took me a little under ten minutes. It was nearly four o’clock; in less than a day I had reconfigured my life.’

As ever, the options for a new life are limited. For this is a third millennium in the West that ‘had previously been known as Judeo-Christian’. A date that is proving ‘one millennium too many, in the way that boxers have one fight too many’. Civilisations, like their inhabitants, die of ‘weariness, of self-disgust’.

Florent-Claude moves to a hotel. There is alcohol, of course, and television. The anti-depressants mean that even masturbation is off. He visits a doctor, who prescribes stronger anti-depressants. Christmas is approaching and the narrator feels that perhaps he should go to a monastery to get through it. The doctor points out that he has probably left it too late for monasteries now, though adds: ‘There are always prostitutes in Thailand — people always forget how important Christmas is in Asia.’

Instead our hero heads to Normandy where he visits Aymeric, who he has not seen since university. But in rural France — squeezed by the EU and globalisation — the situation has also deteriorated. Written before the Yellow Vest movement got going, Houellebecq again earns (as he did from Submission) a reputation for prophecy.

Aymeric’s wife has left him, taking the children with her. The hereditary farm and house can only be sustained by constantly selling off land. A solitary act of entrepreneurship — the building of a set of bungalows along the coast — has not taken off. As Florent-Claude sinks further, he lives in one of these houses. The only other inhabitant is a German birdwatcher, who takes a quarter of an hour’s detour to avoid meeting him. The German turns out to be a paedophile. Houellebecq suggests that child-adult relations, like all other human relations, have broken down irreparably in this age.

Florent-Claude had an early relationship with a woman called Camille. A couple of decades after he has betrayed her, he searches for — and then stalks — her. She has a child now: ‘I could have anticipated that — women do sometimes have children.’ But nothing can be remade. Towards the end there is a magnificent sour reverie on Thomas Mann, and a realisation:

Basically, for several years after my separation from Camille, I had told myself that we would find one another again sooner or later, that it was inevitable since we loved each other, that we just needed to let the wounds heal, as they say, but we were still young and had our whole lives ahead of us. Now, I turned around and noticed that life was over, that it had passed us by without really giving us any clear signs, then it had quietly, discreetly and elegantly taken its cards back and simply turned away from us; really, if you looked at it closely, it hadn’t been very long, our life.

Houellebecq writes with such facility and humour that it can look easy. Yet how many other novelists can make you moan, laugh and keep reading like he does? He deserves his reputation as the novelist who most understands our age, most reviles it, and may well come to represent it best.

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