Michel Houellebecq, “Serotonin” (2019) (translated from the French by Shaun Whiteside) – I have a little test I like to subject contemporary literature to; I call it The Hook Test. I take a novel about the muddle of contemporary identity — who are we? what does contemporary society/technology etc mean for our senses of self? Is sincerity and/or happiness possible or even desirable, and under what conditions? on and on — and I read it, and then I ask myself: “did this novel say anything about its subject that noted nineties band Blues Traveler didn’t say better, more succinctly and with more effective imagery in their 1994 hit ‘Hook’? Is there any way in which this novel (usually at least a hundred pages and several hours worth of reading time) is actually superior to the three-minute pop song by a band I can tolerate but do not love? Did the expensively-educated litterateur have anything to offer next to the New School dropout and libertarian who makes irresponsible decisions about crossbows, besides, of course, the class cachet of being seen with a literary novel?”
As you can probably tell, I find most contemporary literary writers fail that test. Jonathan Franzen, Sheila Heti, Lauren Oyler, Karl-Ove Knausgaard, Tao LinJeffrey Eugenides, Otessa Moshfegh, Bret Easton Ellis, Teju Cole- not one of them beats that fat dude from the nineties, as far as I’m concerned, not in substance and frankly not in style, either, though jam bands really aren’t my thing. I am more impressed with what Blues Traveler did than with that list, and you have to figure it includes some future Nobel laureates. I don’t think Blues Traveler said anything really profound in “Hook.” They just illuminated some aspects of contemporary life (and what does it say that we’re still dealing with the same bullshit, in more or less the same frames just with more bandwidth, as a pop song from 1994?) in a reasonably succinct, witty way, and showed some chops in doing so- not anyone could have played that song the same way. People paid a lot of money and given a lot of respect — to say nothing of space, hundreds of pages versus a few minutes — to say something about the same subjects that kind of lame band took on fail to do that.
Interestingly, I can think of one contemporary writer who has both passed and failed The Hook Test: Michel Houellebecq. He passed it with “The Elementary Particles” and “The Possibility of an Island.” From where I sit, he barely cleared the bar with “The Map and the Territory.” But to the extent “Submission” was about contemporary identity and not just a thought experiment/sexual fantasy, it fails the test. And his latest, “Serotonin,” undoubtedly enters into the same space as “Hook” and it fails next to it big time, as ignominiously as Knausgaard or Cole (if not as crashingly bad as Franzen or Oyler).
This sucks, for a few reasons. It sucks because “Serotonin” was not an enjoyable read, obviously. It sucks because Houellebecq can do better, or could, anyway, almost twenty years ago now. It also sucks because Houellebecq was, arguably, the last of the great right-wing writers. There used to be a lot of them- you really can’t appreciate any aspect of modern culture, including both popular and “literary” writing, without at least respecting what artists from the right brought to the table (or, for that matter, artists who cheered on the depredations of any communist tyrant you care to name). I did a whole YouTube video about it! And named Houellebecq as one of three remaining good right-wing fiction writers, and the only one who came from “literary” fiction (though his best work uses a lot of scifi elements). I guess there isn’t really much reason to lament the breed going extinct, except that it’s a bad weather sign for where both literature and the right are going. But I still find it a bummer in and of itself.
That said, it’s worth noting here that the critics are all wrong to say that “Serotonin” is some big deal political novel, a cri de coeur from the euroskeptic right. The book mostly deals with the inner life of Florent-Claude, a sad agriculture bureaucrat. And by inner life, I mostly mean how he’s lonely and horny and nothing makes him happy. Florent-Claude’s love and sex life are considerably more exciting than one would think, from that description- I wonder if that’s down to national differences, no one would write an American sad sack lamenting his life with a sexy younger (Asian, because why not) girlfriend, or the many passionate and highly erotic love affairs he had before then, if they really wanted to get quotidian desperation across. All that’s a problem for rock stars and, I guess, Frenchmen.
Florent-Claude ghosts the sexy Asian lady, tries some antidepressants, and wanders around France trying to find people from his past. He finds an old friend from agricultural college who’s descended from the Norman aristocracy and who’s trying to make a go of it farming his ancestral land. This is where the politics supposedly enters into things. Global competition and EU rules — which Florent-Claude helped implement in his capacity as a bureaucrat — are strangling the traditional agricultural class of France. These same forces created the anodyne world in which Florent-Claude cannot help but feel inauthentic and unhappy. You can’t lead a simple life in a nice rural space with its own peculiar cheeses and stuff anymore!
That’s a big part of it, for the French, and the differences between the French vision of a disappearing good life and the American provided most of the interest that Houellebecq failed to give this book. The big thing with the French is local peculiarity. This mostly comes out in consumables- unique cheeses and wines and stuff for each region or even each town. You need a highly sensitive sensibility to care about that stuff, to be able to tell the difference between “traditionally” made cheeses and ones that cut corners. When Americans talk about “local tradition” they usually mean “will the federal government make us stop treating people like animals.” The good life as understood by Americans accepts — demands — a much greater degree of homogeneity, less sensibility. Arguably, America won the Cold War with the promise of refrigerators and dishwashers, the same in millions of identical, but gleaming clean, kitchens on tv (well, death squads too, can’t forget the death squads). Some people — parts of our own bourgeoisie, too — try to figure out how to have all that nice stuff plus, like, bespoke local dairy products. It’s a balancing act and takes a lot of resources, and it’s no guarantee small producers will win out.
Anyway, Florent-Claude hangs out in rural Normandy, accidentally happens upon a German pedophile, and witnesses his Norman friend and some of their friends do a last stand for protectionism of their dairy products, which culminates in some gun violence. F-C then encounters an ex with a kid, has a big sad, keeps taking antidepressants, throws a rhetorical bone to Jesus who he doesn’t believe in (maybe Houellebecq will pull a Huysmans — we know he’s a fan — and go super-Catholic?), considers suicide, then that’s it, book over. People were like “omfg he predicted the gilles jaunes!” “Serotonin” was written before those started but published after. I don’t know, I was under the impression the French did a lot of protests like that? Some critic somewhere said something like “Steve Bannon could have written this book.” Maybe- you’d figure in speech, at least, Bannon would have gotten to the political juice earlier, not maundered about women and impotence so much, but he’s also dumb and a middle aged man, so who knows?
It increasingly seems like Houellebecq could pass the Hook Test, back when he could, by an old litfic technique- lean on genre. “The Elementary Particles” and “The Possibility of an Island” both had strong scifi elements. There was all the same alienation from contemporary society, the “decline of the west” stuff, the provocations and casual sexism, but there was also more stuff to pay attention to. I didn’t want to believe this would happen, but at this point, Houellebecq really does read like a grayer-toned and smarter version of the authenticity-ponderers that are his anglophone contemporaries. Why shouldn’t he? It’s not like he gives a shit- presumably he just writes for money and/or some little attention-high, that’s the vision of the world he promulgates in his books, anyway. This is less of a waste of time than a lot of other contemporary litfic. Houellebecq is intermittently capable of honesty and close observation, more than the Hetis and Eugenideses of the world. But the fact I’d even put him
in that space is a bad sign. That’s what makes this book hard to read at times, not the same provocations Houellebecq’s been doing since people thought John Edwards might be President someday. **’