A Book From the Point of View of a Penis: Houellebecq Is Back

In holding up a sarcastic and crooked mirror before his own society and the West in general, the misanthropic French novelist delivers the provocative and painful goods

Avirama Golan
Avirama Golan
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A demonstrator wearing a yellow vests reading "Macron, Santa Claus for the rich, ennemy of the French people" Feb. 5, 2019 in Paris.
A demonstrator wearing a yellow vests reading "Macron, Santa Claus for the rich, ennemy of the French people" Feb. 5, 2019 in Paris. Credit: Michel Euler,AP
Avirama Golan
Avirama Golan

"Sérotonine" by Michel Houellebecq, Flammarion, 352 pages (French)

In early January, when “Sérotonine,” the new novel by Michel Houellebecq, was not even in the stores yet, frenetic debates erupted in the French media: Did the misanthropic and embittered writer predict (with genius! with genius!) the so-called Yellow Vest protest in France, or did he (once again) spread 350 pages with annoying, provocative-to-the-point-of-boring and occasionally entertaining thoughts – as always suffused with descriptions of bizarre and misogynous sex – that will (once again) make critics foam at the mouth with anger, self-righteousness and shock?

The short answer to the question of prophecy as well as to that of besmearing all those pages is no. Regarding the question of descriptions of sex, the answer is of course in the affirmative. They are gloriously revolting, but relatively limited compared to the arcane parts of the book that deal with descriptions of cheeses, cows and restaurant menus, and come from a less-than-usual politically correct world – even for Houellebecq.

The explanation for this may lie in the gloomy situation of the story’s protagonist, who goes by the embarrassingly flowery name of Florent-Claude Labrouste, a middle-aged depressive type. Although the anti-depressant medicine (serotonin) prescribed by the doctor helps Labrouste keep his head above the gloomy swamp of his life, it totally destroys his bored and spent libido.

Michel Houellebecq, with copies of his new novel "Sérotonine." Sacrificing himself so those morons -- all of us -- will understand they’re destroying themselves and the world.Credit: Thibault Camus/AP

The long answer is far more complex. Houellebecq is neither a brilliant philosopher nor a prophet, but beyond all its magic tricks, most of which are cliched, this novel also holds up a crooked, sarcastic and depressing mirror before French society in particular and the West in general. Is there, concealed behind this mirror, a totally opposite world of values? That is not clear.

Like its predecessors, this novel – due to be published in English in the fall – does not offer consolation or hope, but unlike its predecessors, in the end a weak candle flickers in the darkness. A somewhat surprising candle, perhaps even somewhat amusing, but it at least presumes to present a small ray of light.

In the spirit of Houellebecq himself – and it’s hard to distinguish between him as narrator and writer, and his main character, who at the height of yearning and longing for what he describes as love of women, actually waxes nostalgic about their bodily orifices (or as he takes care to remind us specifically, the vagina, ass and mouth) – it could be said that the entire novel is told from the point of view of a penis whose time has past: droopy, isolated, helpless, sad and miserable.

That may be a somewhat brutal summary – in light of the large number of subjects that Houellebecq manages to cram into this picaresque journey of the protagonist to his not-so-glorious past – but it apparently captures the ideological foundation of the book, and should not be taken lightly at all.

Protesters wearing yellow vests clash with French riot police near the Invalides during a demonstration of the "Yellow Vests" movement in Paris, France, February 16, 2019. Credit: \ BENOIT TESSIER/ REUTERS

In many senses, “Serotonin” really is a picaresque novel, mainly according to the French tradition. Houellebecq permits himself to enter and leave and once again enter the picaresque structure and to dabble in its attributes: a first-person story, a weak plot if any, no development or growth of the hero, a walk along a thin line of normative behavior, occasional breaches of the law and so on. The gaps between the classical genre and the story of Labrouste create no small amount of amusing irony and shed a particularly ludicrous and critical light (or actually a dark shadow) on French society and its present events.

Torn web of ties

Although Labrouste belongs to the upper-middle class and his ostensible place on the margins of society stems mainly from his own subjective feelings and the choices he has made all his life, like every picaresque protagonist he wanders from place to place, and time after time is dragged into adventures and encounters with people.

The encounters with the book’s secondary characters – mainly the women in his past, but also a former friend from school, the doctor who prescribes the medicine for him and more – are spread like a torn web of associations and connections: Every time it seems as if the hero is narrating the most recent years of his life, leading up to the present, in an orderly manner, he jumps backward and then forward again, and confuses the reader.

All the encounters are gloomy and alienated, and all stem from Labrouste's desperate and obsessive – and at the same time not particularly vigorous – desire to find out how and what really happened in his life. Because at the age of 46 he already feels that he has reached the end of the road and is trying to retrace the footsteps along the path he has taken until now. The entire essence of his journey into the past is a depressing search for what the hero, or Houellebecq, calls love, and perhaps also an undeclared quest for meaning.

The structural trick is only part of the sophistication of “Sérotonine.” It’s not easy to identify it, because it's concealed under the piles of words and thoughts that Houellebecq scatters about with irritating negligence, and a reasonable reader will find it difficult to get through them without getting angry, yawning or skipping several pages without missing a thing (are the folks at Flammarion afraid to mess with Houellebecq's dirty mouth and therefore don't edit the flow of his verbiage, or did he manage to convince them that it’s sacred?) – but it definitely exists and makes a strong impression.

Houellebecq knows how to maintain the choice, important elements of the genre, and at the end he brings them to a dramatic conclusion, which includes the element of religious or spiritual redemption and a description of the protagonist as someone who is sacrificing himself for what he sees as an effort to repair the world.

Copies of French writer Michel Houellebecq's novel "Serotonine" are displayed in a book store, in Paris in 2019. Credit: Thibault Camus,AP

Labrouste is an official at the agriculture ministry who specialized in production of cheeses and also likes cows in general (they remind him of his warm childhood landscape). Like all of Houellebecq’s protagonists, he hates women in particular and people in general, is a heavy smoker, gets drunk and pollutes the environment for his own pleasure.

Although the book begins with his random and annoying encounter at a gas station in Spain with a young blond woman (of course, women over 40 are old, menopausal and out-of-bounds). The meeting ends with masturbation and a trip back to Paris – but only after this opening, which is not related to anything (nor does it connect to anything later on), does the story actually begin.

Labrouste lives with a Japanese partner named Yuzu, and the relationship between them is bitter and miserable. The choice of the name Yuzu is ironic and not coincidental: Yuzu is a plant that famous French pastry chefs like to use as an exotic and pretentious ingredient in elegant cakes and desserts, and Houellebecq’s Yuzu is no less elegant: She is smeared with layers of makeup that whiten her face to death, and with the deliberately aggravating racism typical of Houellebecq is described as the prototype of an odd, submissive and hypocritical Japanese woman.

While the main character is no longer capable of having sexual relations because of the anti-depressant that he takes, his partner betrays him. She participates in wild orgies filmed on video and her partners are dogs of all breeds and genders.

This horrifying description, which attributes a bizarre deviance to the Japanese woman (of course she's Japanese, right?) that even our sex-starved hero (at least he used to be like that, but his mind continues to fantasize) doesn’t find charming, is the last nail in the coffin of an unfortunate relationship that lasted for two years.

Labrouste decides to leave – but not simply to leave, but to disappear entirely. He resigns from his job, cancels the lease on his apartment, transfers his bank account and moves to a rundown hotel in a different neighborhood, which still allows people to smoke in some of its rooms.

Nothing new in 'deep France'

From here on in his new life, or perhaps his new death, will begin. Death may be Labrouste’s only desire, and indeed seems to be his top priority all the time. His parents, he says, committed suicide together the moment they discovered that his 64-year-old father had a malignant tumor. Labrouste sees that act as a gesture of great love, the likes of which, he realizes, he himself is totally incapable of experiencing.

From his hotel room he embarks on his tiring, erratic journey, filled with details about missed loves in the past, including several abortive attempts at making his drooping organ erect. At the center of that journey the meeting with Aymeric – a former friend from his agricultural college, in the region locals usually call “deep France,” the outlying farming areas – gradually begins to take a dominant place.

Houellebecq’s focus on “deep France,” once sanctified in the realm of old French politics, which for a long time now has turned its back on it and now worships urbanity and the global financial establishment, has misled most critics, who were impressed by the author's ostensible prediction of the Yellow Vest protest, the grass-roots populist movement for economic justice that began last November.

French writer Michel Houellebecq in 2014.Credit: AFP

But the conflict between the agricultural periphery and the elite and the government in France really is nothing new. Just as the clash between globalization and competition among the European Common Market countries are not new. Truck drivers, sheep and pig farmers and others have for some time already been involved in violent clashes with officials in Brittany, and the humiliation of people from the periphery, including farmers, has long been reflected in votes for the ultranationalist right – first for Jean-Marie Le Pen and afterward his daughter.

There is no question that Houellebecq identifies with the rift between “deep,” peripheral France and Paris, which adorns itself with the feathers of a global city and is becoming cosmopolitan, involved and is increasingly open to immigrants of all religions and colors.

But that’s only part of his ideology, and there’s nothing new about it. It’s not surprising, for example, that his main character believes that there’s no difference between the "untamed France" of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and “La Republique En Marche” of Emanuel Macron. Both parties have bored him to the same extent.

The innovation in “Sérotonine” can be found in another layer of the book. Beyond the ragged plot, the language that flutters between dry simplicity and heartrending lyricism, and the bits of reality, some of which are totally unrelated to anything else and create a burdensome sense of rot (including the hero’s surveillance of a pedophilic ornithologist) – the main theme of loss of sexual potency has a disturbing significance that lasts long after you've finished reading.

The death of sexual potency is the sad price paid by the protagonist for suppressing the desire for death, which is the only desire that remains to him. Yes, Freud is turning over in his grave and shouting: “I said it first!”

In a most definite way, in Houellebecq the opposite of the sex drive – on which are based the longing, sorrow and regrets of the present hero, and in fact the existence and meaning of life of all the protagonists in his previous books – is Thanatos, the death instinct. There’s nothing in between. So when Labrouste ends his journey into the past, and all he has left is a limp sex organ and a meager bank account, he embarks on an affair with death.

First he engages in a sort of target practice; then he fantasizes that he will kill the young son of his former lover, in the off chance of restoring their love (their love? He never showed her love, and even betrayed her with his bored indifference); and in the end he gets to the real deal: the romantic thought of suicide.

Despite the darkness surrounding the book as it progresses toward its finale, or perhaps precisely because of it, at this point it begins to accumulate literary and even surprising human power. Labrouste imagines falling from the apartment in the alienated high-rise he ends up in for lack of choice (after his hotel becomes 100-percent smoke free), but is unable to actually kill himself. Instead he calculates the speed of the fall according to some known acceleration formula.

"Yellow Vest" protesters during the Carnival in Nice, France, on Sunday. Houellebecq identifies with the rift between “deep,” peripheral France and global Paris.Credit: Eric Gaillard/Reuters

In effect, he is in a situation identical to that of Western society, in his opinion: impotent and depressed, with a rotten past behind it and a black future before it, consisting entirely of death and loss. It’s no coincidence that Larouste is reading Nikolai Gogol’s “Dead Souls” and Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice.” While adding a few pornographic editorial comments that are not really original, he identifies with both books.

Suppressing urges

The great absurdity lies in the cure: In order to overcome the depression that is likely to lead to death, the anti-depressant suppresses the sex drive and thereby in effect kills the urge to live and leads to death. This is the pill that is supposed to kill death, but cannot do so, of course, and it finishes off what’s left of life. No serotonin will help here. Serotonin is a synthetic illusion, and the unfortunate work that is not redeemed by means of sex won’t be salvaged by suppressing sex either.

And that is the painful and pain-inflicting declaration of this novel, which reflects something precise about the signs of the time: The more permissive the Western world, and the more it seeks sexual stimulants some of which are mechanical and alienating – the more it is flooded by a wave of self-righteousness, purism and hatred of sexuality, and perhaps hatred of the will to live as well.

Many young people the world over have less sex today than their parents had; abstention is no less prevalent than polyamory and other new sexual fashions. These facts are only one aspect of a depressive phenomenon, which is of far greater significance than it would seem to be.

On the one hand, the terror of self-righteous political correctness on the part of ostensible liberals and the terror of conservative religious puritanism, which attacks with morbid obsessiveness anything that even resembles a demonstration of sexuality – these phenomena are both clearly becoming dominant. On the other, Donald Trump, president of the free world, boasts of the fact that he “grabs pussy,” and a South American president screams at a female journalist that “nobody will want to rape you, you’re so ugly.”

Emotional and ethical shallowness flattens every political and ideological opinion in general to the point of screaming that crosses political and social lines and blurs faces, viewpoints and differences. Houellebecq, in his unbridled way, feels and expresses this well.

Such an achievement would have been sufficient, but Houellebecq isn’t satisfied with the role of the writer or the thinker who warns of society’s ills. He sees himself as a far more important messenger. A hint of that can be found in what seems to be a very small paragraph right before the end, in which Labrouste describes how much he identifies with Jesus. No less! And like that man, who turned to God from the crucifix and begged, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” – Labrouste, or perhaps Houellebecq, is willing to be a martyr and to sacrifice himself so that those morons, in other words all of us, will open their eyes and understand that they’re destroying themselves and the world.

That’s the tiny and deceptive ray of light that Houellebecq offers his readers in "Sérotonine." Alas. Maybe he can't stand the fact that we were touched by the message that peers out, razor sharp, from the piles of verbiage and the chaos. What can you do? This is Houellebecq, after all: one moment serious and afterward unable to restrain himself and making fun of himself during a small attack of megalomania.

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