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Michel Houellebecq: Prophet or Troll?

A review of Serotonine (French Edition), by Michel Houellebecq. French and European Publications Inc (January 3, 2019), 352 pages.

Michel Houllebecq, the bestselling French novelist and provocateur, has a knack for predicting disasters. His sex-tourism novel Plateforme (2001) featured a terrorist incident at a resort in Thailand that was eerily similar to the 2002 Bali bombings. Soumission (2015) was released on the day of the al-Qaeda-linked Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris; the novel’s subject (an Islamist takeover of France) made the coincidence distinctly uncomfortable. Now Houellebecq’s most recent book, Sérotonine (2019), appears to have foreseen the ‘gilet jaune’ (‘yellow vest’) protests that have rocked France since November.

Clearly Houellebecq saw something like this coming, and understood that it was inevitable. Yet for all his perspicacity, Houellebecq is often dismissed as a mere literary troll. Certainly he has a troll’s gift for identifying weak spots in his targets, and then attacking them relentlessly. He is not above this sort of nihilistic glee; but unlike a normal troll, he focuses his rage and disgust, not on random individuals, but on the culture that has grown to dominate the French governing class in the wake of the May 1968 student protests in Paris.

Houellebecq is not a conventional literary artist, or a particularly skilled one. His attempts at philosophical discussion cannot withstand scrutiny for long. He has little critical acumen; even his opinions are, for the most part, conventional and unsurprising, except (sometimes) in their provocative manner of expression. Where Houellebecq stands out from his peers is in his freakish gift for observation. He is not a lyrical writer or a storyteller: he is a seer.

Houellebecq was born on 26th February 1956 and brought up by his father’s mother, a committed Communist. His mother, Lucia Ceccaldi, seems actively to have hated him from birth, and kept her distance from her son as best she could. After she divorced Houellebecq’s father, Ceccaldi moved to Brazil to live as a hippie with a new boyfriend. In 2008, at the age of 83, she published a bitter, vitriolic memoir, L’Innocente (‘The Innocent Woman’), which appears consistent with Houellebecq’s fictionalised portrait of her in his 1998 novel Les particules élémentaires (‘The Elementary Particles’) as a high-strung, self-indulgent narcissist.

Houellebecq attended an agricultural college instead of a university. At twenty-four he graduated, married the sister of a classmate, and failed to find a job. He fell into a depression, and spent time in psychiatric hospitals. Finally he found work as a computer programmer. In his spare time he haunted public libraries and wrote poetry, meanwhile his marriage crumbled. Gradually he built up a modest reputation in literary circles; in 1991 he published his first book, a critical study of the American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) called H. P. Lovecraft: Contre le monde, contre la vie (‘H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life’).

In his poetry, Houellebecq seems resigned to the grim post-war anti-aesthetic atmosphere of IKEA, Costco, fast food and Brutalist architecture. The most original feature of his verse is its strict form. Houellebecq discusses porn, hospitals, the unemployment office, suburban bus stops, fluorescent-lit supermarkets and the diseases of old age in the style of French classical poetry. Or he tries to. But he lacks the command of poetic devices — imagery, metaphor, rhythm, sound effects — to make his poems any less forgettable than his subject matter. Not even the rhymes stick in the reader’s memory. The banality is intentional; but he does not need to repeat it again and again in every single sonnet and prose poem.

For all their limitations Houellebecq’s poems were well received by the Parisian literati; his 1996 collection Le Sens du combat (translated into English in 2010 by Delphine Grass and Timothy Mathews as The Art of Struggle) was awarded the Prix de Flore. This entitled Houellebecq to 365 glasses of Pouilly-Fumé to be drunk at the rate of one a day over the course of a year at the Café de Flore in the Boulevard Saint-Germain.

In his verse Houellebecq had identified the material and themes that preoccupied him, but he had not found a way productively to explore them. After a few false starts he managed to complete a short, semi-autobiographical novel that would set the pattern for all his future writing.

Extension du domaine de la lutte (1994) was translated into English as Whatever (1998); though the title literally means ‘extension of the battlefield’, or ‘extension of the field of struggle’. The ‘struggle’ in question is the class struggle, which (in Houellebecq’s eyes) is no longer purely a matter of money, social status or the means of production: now there is the further dimension of sex.

In the novel’s most famous passage, the narrator is a harbinger of the ‘incel’ subculture:

… in Western societies, sex represents a second system of distinction that is completely independent of money, but is just as remorseless. These two systems [financial distinctions and sexual ones] have parallel results. As with economic liberalism … unrestrained sexual liberalism generates the phenomenon of absolute impoverishment.

Some men have sex every day; others five or six times in their life, or never once. Some may have sex with dozens of women; others with nobody. This is how the market works.

In an economy where nobody can be laid off, pretty much everyone eventually finds a job. In a sexual economy where adultery is prohibited, everyone can basically find someone to sleep with.

In a fully liberal economy, some people amass enormous fortunes; others marinate in unemployment and misery. In a fully liberal sexual economy, some men enjoy a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and loneliness.

The main character in Extension du domaine de la lutte is a depressed, cynical, isolated thirty-year-old computer programmer who smokes four packs of cigarettes a day and writes fables about animals in his spare time. He is awkward, unattractive to women, and prone to blackout drinking. There is nothing resembling beauty in his life; he tries to relieve his nausea and depression through masturbation. Houellebecq has based this character so closely on himself that he cannot be bothered to invent biographical details to separate the creation from the author.

There is another character who is even more pathetic than the narrator: a twenty-eight-year-old colleague named Raphaël Tisserand. Not only is he repellent: he has no idea, even in his worst moments of self-hatred and self-pity, of just what a loser he is. Tisserand lacks self-awareness, and thinks he has some hope of seducing a woman. His anger at his failures result in extraordinarily dark comedy when, at the novel’s climax, the narrator persuades Tisserand to try to murder a young woman who has rejected his advances in a seedy provincial nightclub, and also kill the man she prefers.

Extension du domaine de la lutte is brutally funny. The reader laughs with shock at the narrator’s unforgiving eye, self-lacerating frankness, and venomous contempt for himself as well as everyone and everything that surrounds him. This could almost be a horror story, except that Houellebecq is too disillusioned to write horror. Why pretend to believe in monsters? Man is bad enough already, and needs no help to make anyone suffer.

Does Houellebecq’s nihilism amount to a coherent philosophical position? Agathe Novak-Lechevalier, a professor of nineteenth-century literature in Paris who has collaborated closely with Houellebecq, keenly emphasizes his intellectual seriousness in her 2017 critical anthology on his work for the ‘Cahiers de L’Herne’ series. Novak-Lechevalier valiantly attempts to demonstrate Houellebecq’s wide range of intellectual competences, but as a literary critic Houellebecq is rarely insightful; on political and philosophical issues he is consistently ill-informed or out of his depth. Indeed, Houellebecq often comes across as philistine and intellectually lazy. His taste for junk-food popular culture is not some provocative pose: he genuinely prefers disposable ephemera to more demanding works of art.

Novak-Lechevalier also helped edit Houellebecq’s short pamphlet on Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), the quintessential pessimistic philosopher. As an introduction to Schopenhauer’s thought, En présence de Schopenhauer is useless. Houellebecq lacks the intellectual stamina for anything more than a superficial engagement with the philosopher’s works, and cannot even describe or summarise his philosophies accurately. All the same, En présence de Schopenhauer turns out to be valuable for what it reveals about the nature of Houellebecq’s work.

The crucial insights of Schopenhauer’s aesthetic philosophy, as Houellebecq summarises it, are that contemplation is the beginning of art, and that all artistic creation is based in an innate disposition towards passive contemplation:

…the artist is always someone who could just as easily do nothing, and be satisfied with immersing himself in the world and enjoying his daydreams.

According to this view, the forces that drive the artist’s appetites and desires never work in concert with the driving forces of art. The essence of Houellebecq’s art lays in his faculty of pure perception, which he has in common with children, madmen and sleeping dreamers.

For all his success as a novelist, Houellebecq is noticeably uncomfortable with the novel as a literary form, but his gift is so elusive and mysterious that it is hard to think of how else he could express himself. Houellebecq’s novels are repetitive: they feature the same narrator, the same narrow range of personalities, the same lack of sympathy for people, the same language and ideas. Houellebecq cannot write convincingly beyond his range of experience; his imagination is not particularly inventive.

Artistically Houellebecq can be crude. He prefers ideas to stories and characters. There is too much discussion in his novels of concepts that Houellebecq could not be bothered to flesh out into narrative scenes. The ideas themselves are often too undercooked to sustain a monologue or dialogue for very long. Houellebecq also habitually wastes space on undigested ruminations about his favourite authors. There is something masochistic about the way he continually brings up classic books, against which his own work can only suffer in comparison.

Houellebecq redeems himself with his genius for manufacturing tense, often farcical situations that implicate the reader no less than the characters involved. His latest novel features a cringe-making encounter with a middle-aged German birdwatcher whom the narrator suspects is a paedophile. He begins to spy on him, aware that he is starting to act like a sex predator himself. Houellebecq manipulates you into sharing his voyeurism, whilst daring you to enjoy it. What are you guilty of, if you want to find out what happens next?

Houellebecq’s seventh novel Sérotonine, published this January, is without question his most impressive achievement to date. He has figured out how to work around his limitations and incorporate them into a unified work of art. The novel is not a complete success; though the first two-thirds are assured, confident and often powerful, and there are haunting passages throughout.

Florent-Claude Labrouste, 46, enjoys an undeservedly high salary for his futile job at the French Ministry of Agriculture. His main duties involve preparing reports and briefing notes for negotiations with international agrobusinesses, European governments, and various offices of the European Union. The job is depressing: Florent’s colleagues are heartless functionaries with business-school degrees; they care more about the economic principles and abstractions with which they have been brainwashed than with the farmers whose lives they are wrecking.

Also, Florent hates his 26-year-old girlfriend Yuzu, the spoilt only child of rich Japanese parents. She sleeps until noon, spends an incredible amount of time grooming at the beginning and end of each day, underperforms at her undemanding job, and stares into the screen of an iPhone, tablet or laptop throughout the majority of her waking hours. Florent and Yuzu scarcely speak, and have not slept together in months. Even so, Florent cannot work up the courage to dump her.

The novel unfolds as a series of flashbacks, as Florent tries to piece together how and where his life began to fail. He ruined his only fulfilling relationships. There was Kate, a hyper-intelligent medical student from Denmark who knew in advance that he would wrong her. Claire, an actress, was maltreated, not only by a toxic mother, but also by her entire chosen profession, so perhaps a real relationship was never possible with her. Worst of all was Florent’s treatment of Camille, the gentle daughter of Portuguese immigrants. He broke her heart for no reason, and was too ashamed to apologise. The scenes in Sérotonine with Camille and Kate are the most painfully affecting that Houellebecq has ever written.

Florent’s only male friend is Aymeric d’Harcourt-Olonde, who could have worked for an international firm in Paris, but decided instead to become an old-fashioned ‘artisanal’ dairy farmer on his ancestral estate. Aymeric is self-loathing and self-destructive, sinking deeper and deeper into alcoholism and depression, whilst developing a fascination with guns.

Florent knows that farmers like Aymeric are doomed: EU policies seem aimed at culling them as though they were diseased livestock. They can only survive if their numbers are reduced by two thirds. In the meantime, the farmers are falling into financial ruin, and the suicide rate in the countryside is rising higher and higher. In their desperation, the farmers decide to rebel against the EU; naturally they choose Aymeric as their leader. There will be an armed revolt that can only end in bloodshed.

Sérotonine begins with Florent’s morning routine of self-medication. He wakes up early, makes a cup of coffee, then enjoys the “perfect drug” that is nicotine. After two or three cigarettes, he takes the antidepressant Captorix, which increases his serotonin levels at the cost of his libido. In this novel, sex is something that happened in the past. Indeed, emasculation and self-sterilisation are major themes in this novel.

In the first flashback of the novel, Florent encounters two attractive young Spanish women who ask for his help in checking the tyres of their car at a filling station near his holiday home in Alméria. The scene seems inconsequential; though until now Houellebecq has never sustained this level of suspense or erotic tension. The more desirable of the two Spaniards will play an important role in the narrative: Florent begins fantasising about her even before they exchange a single word.

This whole opening section, with its vivid depiction of an inexpensive Spanish holiday resort, presents a microcosmic vision of a declining European Union where the citizens are neither reproducing, nor doing anything useful or productive, nor doing anything that could be perceived as having a good time. Young and old alike lie in the sun, distracting or drugging themselves; or else they sit in bad restaurants and bars, comfortably bored.

Florent finds himself surrounded by fat retired German schoolteachers, or else aging widows, divorced men and elderly gay couples from Belgium, Holland, England and Scandinavia, amidst a few twenty-something hippies and anti-austerity protesters from the local area. The roads are full of lorries driven by Latvian and Bulgarian immigrants transporting vegetables that have been picked by illegal immigrants from Mali and will be sold in supermarkets in northern Europe.

Florent is disgusted by the vulgarity that surrounds him; but he is no less vulgar, tasteless or ignorant than anybody else in this landscape. He has more money than most others do; otherwise he has no real reason to look down his nose at them.

Houellebecq depicts a Europe where French culture is a bad joke. Florent’s only reliable source of harmless pleasure is cheap food, alcohol, 1970s rock albums and a bizarre fascination with cattle. The entire European Union seems to him not just mediocre, but absurd and brutal. In one of the novel’s more disturbing passages, a nineteen-year-old veterinary sciences student is sent to an industrial chicken farm. She cannot comprehend the casual barbarity of this efficient killing factory, and runs away in tears to the closest place of refuge — which turns out to be the local Macdonald’s.

This is a de-Christianised post-1960s Europe that can no longer even pretend to believe in anything, loathes and fears its past, and no longer knows how to create anything attractive. To round out the bleak dichotomy between a traditional versus modern existence, Florent’s doctor thinks that the best choices for avoiding suicidal depression are either isolation in a monastery, or a trip to Thailand for sex tourism.

The first two hundred pages of Sérotonine are consistently absorbing — the work of an artist at the height of his powers. But then Houellebecq loses focus. There are masterly sequences in the latter third of the book, and certain sections are among the finest that Houellebecq has written. Yet he loses control of his material. This is particularly evident in sections concerning Aymeric.

As a character Aymeric is more or less plausible. But Houellebecq’s depiction of his farm, estate and chateau seems sketchy. Initially, these are not important to the story; though as the narrative proceeds it becomes increasingly clear that Houellebecq simply has not thought through key elements of Aymeric’s life, family, milieu or surroundings. The economic and cultural implications of his situation are crucial to the story Houellebecq wants to tell. But he has failed to imagine them fully, and as a result the novel begins to fall apart.

To Houellebecq’s credit, Sérotonine remains readable even as it loses momentum. But the section that ought to have been the climax seems hastily written and under-imagined, despite a few flashes of brilliance. After that Florent’s increasing depression begins to take over the novel, and it becomes apparent that Houellebecq knows where he wants this story to go but has no idea of how to get there.

For all the slackness of the last third of the book, and the peculiar sluggishness of the last forty pages, Sérotonine is a remarkable novel. Houellebecq has not merely described the symptoms of what seems to be wrong with Europe, and diagnosed at least part of the problem with the current European Union; he has made it clear that it cannot survive in its current form any longer. But he has no solution other than to shrug his shoulders and suggest the possibility of suicide.

Of course, suicide is not an option, even as a vague literary metaphor. Houellebecq thinks that the whole project of a European Union is based on a defective philosophy that is leading it towards disaster. He paints a picture of a continent that is drugging itself to avoid confronting the reality of a cruel, arbitrary, philistine, unaccountable bureaucratic tyranny that will destroy as much of European culture and civilisation as it can get away with before the whole system collapses under the weight of its own pointlessness. But Houllebecq flinches from his own solution to the problem, which appears to involve an armed insurrection, followed by God knows what. No wonder Florent would prefer simply to increase his dosage of the anti-depressant that makes him impotent.

Houellebecq does not ruminate about the human condition: he is trying to make sense of observable external facts that cannot be dismissed or ignored. Perhaps his chronic depression disables him from taking anything into account that would lead to another conclusion.

There is no obvious scenario in which the European Union will grow, gain power or influence, or even retain some measure of long-term stability. Will its end really look like the one that Houellebecq builds towards in Sérotonine — and then shies away from? It would take a more inventive creative imagination to do justice to such a concept, of course. Though Houellebecq simply might not realise the full implications of his own narrative. Or he might be in denial about them because he cannot foresee a pleasant future.

Houellebecq has a terrifying gift; what he says cannot be ignored, no matter how hard he tries to undermine himself by posing as a mere depressed, offensive clown.

 

Jaspreet Singh Boparai is a former academic. He used to write for Quillette under the pseudonym ‘Sandra Kotta’.

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