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.
Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq, review: A sharp tale of France’s moral decline | inews
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? 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.
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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. Also, Florent hates his 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.
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He broke her heart for no reason, and was too ashamed to apologise. 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.
La carte et le territoire
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. 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. 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.
The entire European Union seems to him not just mediocre, but absurd and brutal. This is a de-Christianised posts 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. 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. 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. But the section that ought to have been the climax seems hastily written and under-imagined, despite a few flashes of brilliance.
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.
Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq, review: A sharp tale of France’s moral decline
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. 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.
That would not be denial. This is what happens when we privilege the deviant and fail to esteem the normal. Evrybody is trying so hard to be an official victim, because in being a victim you can blame others for your mistakes and at the same gain an undeserved power over the rest of humanity. There are really two choices: be a victim or take responsibility. Avoid the latter for long enough and something will break. Perfectly summarized, except that it only seems to be everybody. How many people do you personally know who strive for Victimhood?
Yes, the media, both social and conventional, are saturated in Victimhood, but I mean real flesh and blood people in the same room. True, the tools of self-respect are no longer taught, but they seem to be attainable within ones self if they are reached for. So the human desire for genuine self-respect and achievement are always there, however much the system might try to extinguish them.
Owen and his posh socialist chums like Ash Sarkar would jump into bed with the mullahs in one hot minute, and despite surely knowing the history of the Iranian revolution be no doubt surprised if they ever did manage to together overthrow the state to find themselves thrown off tall buildings by the mullahs once they were in charge for being a homosexual and an apostate respectively.