Houellebecq’s latest novel...contains a scathing critique of the European Union and imagines farmers blocking roadways and taking up arms against the state ... Although it’s a sophisticated work of literature written in a mournful key, Serotonin might as well have a jacket blurb from Steve Bannon. Or from a pharmaceutical company that manufactures antidepressants ... Houellebecq draws a not-so-subtle connection between body and state, between the declining health of the protagonist and the health of French society ... Say what you want about Houellebecq, and there’s a lot to say, but he’s definitely keeping the novel as a form relevant ... As with Houellebecq’s earlier novels, Serotonin is suffused with a nostalgic longing for an unattainable past ... Houellebecq has always been provocative, especially in his depictions of women. With Serotonin, this treatment flies decisively against the prevailing winds ... Though pretty terrible on women, Houellebecq is better on economics ... In Serotonin, power and powerlessness—emotional, sexual, political, economic—are big motifs ... Maybe [Houellebecq] is a visionary after all. And his is a grim vision indeed.
The new Michel Houellebecq novel, Serotonin, is an exhausted and exhausting book. It makes you wonder if he has played out his string as a fiction writer ... Like nearly every Houellebecq novel, Serotonin should be stamped on its spine with a tiny skull and crossbones, like you used to see on bottles of poison, to keep away the devout, the unsuspecting and the pure of heart. His fiction picks up topics like prostitution, sexism, pedophilia, pornography, racism, torture and sex tourism as if they were cans of diet soda. He turns them over to observe them coolly, neutrally and often comically from all sides. He triggers intense responses ... Submission, in terms of its plot, felt like a vise slowly tightening. Serotonin is comparatively quite slack. Like bleach-burned sheets, it seems thin and worn. Someone has been in this motel room all night, strewing scurrilities ... Houellebecq arrives in your life 'waving genitals and manuscripts,' to borrow a phrase from Howl. Don’t feed his characters. They will keep coming around. Houellebecq’s great trick is managing to smuggle so much life into his novels, even into minor ones like Serotonin, while his characters’ hearts can seem, like Damien Hirst’s shark in its formaldehyde, to marinate in brine.
How to describe these crass, underpowered, chronologically bewildering opening sections? Shtick seems the best word ... Female characters have never been Houellebecq’s strong point, and the ones he parades past us here have about as much human interest as a catalogue of sexbots. That’s part of the routine, of course—narrator as sad creep imprisoned in his own puerile fantasies—but it seems very old suddenly ... Here and there Houellebecq relaxes from this effortful brand maintenance as purveyor of smut to the intelligentsia, and muses on non-sexual aspects of human life such as gastronomy or gentrification. There are some characteristic provocations ... It played better when there was a liberal political consensus to act as a foil than it does under current conditions, but Houellebecq has a sociological curiosity few other novelists possess, and his more considered observations are still worth paying attention to ... an unexpectedly gripping story begins to crystallise. Suddenly the book’s seemingly haphazard elements begin working together ... instead of sensibly ending on its high note, the book meanders on through a set of ridiculous plot twists in Labrouste’s personal life, petering out on a note of morbid self-pity. And yet there it is. The agony and rage of the demoted, the discarded, the 'deplorable' (a segment of them, if not the whole basket), laid bare. What other novelist would have the willingness to go there, let alone the wherewithal? Out of this feeble excuse for a hat, Houellebecq has once again pulled, if nothing warm and fluffy, something at least dangerously alive.
This used to be called 'existentialism,' and later, 'emo,' but at the end of the twenty-first century’s second decade it reads more like cringe. The morose sexual fantasies of a wealthy, middle-aged white man, Houellebecq’s literary specialty, are a hard sell in a post-#MeToo literary market ... finishing in signature style, without resolution, Houellebecq invites his audience to stare with him down the precipice of the unknown, to ask ourselves what is funny, what is not, what it is that we despise, and what that says about ourselves. Were his words uttered in the context of politics or public life, where people were once expected to pretend, at least, to believe what they say, it is unclear whether Houellebecq would be able to continue selling the number of books that he does ... Houellebecq wants us to laugh, but as the contempt he glorifies proliferates beyond the pages of his novels and the borders of France, it becomes easier to conclude, in the words of another European troll past his prime, that joke isn’t funny anymore.
Critics accuse Houellebecq of nihilism. Not so: he is a moral conservative behind all the libertine swagger and stone-faced mischief. True love counts, its betrayal wrecks lives, and Labrouste finally grasps Christ’s 'horror at the hardening of people’s hearts' ... He still loves to tease and goad—not always with much point. In Normandy, a witnessed episode of paedophilia goes nowhere and does nothing. Still, his caustic ironies entertain, with Labrouste an oddly companionable grouch ... Houellebecq keeps his own pages turning briskly. Yet they open on to scenes familiar from his own back catalogue. Self-imitation takes over: all his greatest hits, now shorn of the thrill of novelty.
Serotonin is Houellebecq’s most direct book, which is perhaps another way of saying it is his least artistic, dragging at times not because it is cynical (though it surely is) but because it is reductive (Eros and Thanatos) and pedantic ... Celine is the focus of the book’s strongest sections, in which the existential edge remains but is scrutinized in light of the unreasonable power of their love, creating stylistic, narrative, and philosophical tension ... convergence with the intellectual mainstream, and his own self-imitating tendencies, have not crowded out what makes Houellebecq unique. His aloof intensity remains paradoxical, provocative, and singular, the atrophy-inducing alienation of someone who has intellectually absconded from everything human while somehow remaining attuned to the redemptive nature of something he believes can no longer exist: an interpersonal relationship uncorrupted by a culture fundamentally hostile to insular and individualized intimacy. Yet, as can happen with a great writer, Houellebecq’s art overrides his diagnoses. He cannot help it.
We are presented with a picture of ageing men who have few other ways to get their kicks other than shooting things, whether that’s themselves or small children; men who are too spineless to take responsibility for relationships; men who would sooner turn to Grand Marnier, Deep Purple and Sherlock Holmes for comfort. Perhaps for Houellebecq’s male admirers, there is something redemptive about someone performing their worst selves on the page, revelling in that dark part of their souls that they delete from their internet caches. I won’t deny that there is something impressive about his commitment to the role, nor that the persona can be extremely funny—like a sort of existential Alan Partridge ... But I struggled to detect any bravery. As a writer, Houellebecq is as sloppy and cowardly as his narrator, vaguely gesturing towards ideas without ever seeing them through ... Serotonin soon becomes banal and predictable, a novel whose universality you immediately begin to question ... This refusal to deal with the complexity of human experience makes Serotonin neither useful to the brain nor the soul.
It is engrossing; it is cartoonishly violent; it is profane; it is perverse; it is now and then very funny. It is cloaked in a garment of melancholy that puts one in mind of walking for hours in a drenched hoodie after an autumn downpour. It is also frequently repulsive—more so than his previous novels, which haven’t exactly attracted the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval ... cannot be read without reference to white male despair, the specter of homicidal incels, and Trumpism ... Houellebecq’s portrait is particularly acidic and will be, for some, unpalatably extreme ... the sort of contemporary moral fable the culture seems to have wanted (and feared) Joker to be. Houellebecq has delivered it, and there’s no need to station armed guards in the bookstores ... What is missing from this novel is any element of grace.
Without much in the way of plot, Serotonin is mostly a platform for Florent-Claude’s reminiscences and musings. Sometimes he’s funny...He makes a few astute observations about French society, too ... On the whole, though, moments of insight and humor in Serotonin are too few and far between. As usual, Houellebecq devotes pages and pages to vulgar descriptions of sex ... There are also episodes of beastiality and pedophilia, which seem calculated to shock and therefore don’t. The bigger problem is that Florent-Claude doesn’t seem interested in thinking too hard about his old relationship with Camille, why it mattered to him, and why he lost it. His mind wanders around like he himself wanders over the French countryside: never getting anywhere ... But then why bother to tell us about it? Perhaps it’s an exercise in fitting form to content. A numb and distracted narrator tells a numb and distracted story. But if so, then Houellebecq the novelist pays a price ... It’s hard not to feel about the novel the way Florent-Claude feels about his life: it should have been better ... Still, Houellebecq is always worth reading because he confronts his readers with fundamental questions ... Houellebecq’s pessimism is so deep and relentless that he seems to be taunting us, all but daring us to draw different conclusions.
The writing is first-person, breezy, Florent as an individual character inevitably meant to function as a type, his depression and impotence a metaphor for European bourgeois masculinity in this second decade of the twenty-first century. Houellebecq is deft in his rendition of bureaucratic acronyms and brand names ... To this, Houellebecq adds his trademark reactionary characterizations, marginalized groups always reduced to offensive stereotypes, women invariably reduced to body parts and types ... None of this, in itself, is particularly impressive or imaginative, even if the pages turn smoothly and the occasional passing insight is on offer. Neither offensiveness nor high culture references can disguise the lurking suspicion that the writer is as shallow and limited in his understanding of the world as his protagonist. Therefore, even though much of the first half of the novel is given over to Florent recalling various past romantic and sexual encounters, his understanding of relationships is so limited as to be tiresome ... even this account of an uprising reveals the limitations of Houellebecq’s craft. There is the language, of course, an easily digestible mash that seems to channel self-help books, thrillers, and the overwrought style of the early-twentieth-century American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft ... In spite of the desire to provide social commentary on current conditions in France, Houellebecq does so only in sporadic fashion ... His interest is not in groups or collectives or even in social breakdown, except when refracted through the bourgeois male ... Houellebecq’s penchant is for the sentimental and the melodramatic rather than the subtle ... suggests that we need to be very sick indeed to match the spirit in which Houellebecq wrote the book.
... inflammatory ... old-fashioned in a sense that is now regarded as 'problematic' ... Houellebecq, through Labrouste, is gleefully nihilistic and dismissive of political correctness, seemingly courting a challenge, comfortable with his work’s inevitable controversy, refreshingly assured of ineluctable scandal. The 63-year-old author is inclined to push buttons ... In this too-precious culture where writers are hamstrung in their efforts to write honestly without fear of political reprisal, Houellebecq dares to delve into the subjectivity of a brutal, toxic masculinity with arresting authority ... Houellebecq captures the spirit of a misguided, rash revolutionary, crusading on behalf of free trade and local farming.
Serotonin simply tracks an existing course to its logical endpoint. A string stretched to its limit is bound to snap. Serotonin is satire only to the extent that Florent-Claude is a cartoon. We are meant to believe that he was once relatively virtuous—an attentive boyfriend, a politically pure bureaucrat, a conscious environmentalist—the implication being that society has squashed him into his current contemptible state ... It’s not that Houellebecq’s diagnosis of economic globalization gone rogue is wrong—if Serotonin reads as nostalgic for the ancien régime, that is chiefly because its class divisions were clearly demarcated, and no one was tricked into complicity with their own demise ... is a life lacking in sexual satisfaction (for men, naturally) really as ignominious as a life without sustainable living conditions?
At times, Serotonin can seem like a purely rhetorical exercise, a sort of homage to the varieties of comic juxtaposition ... Grand statements peter out with acts of deflation ... while cynical bathos becomes a kind of tic ... the book also comes pitted with dinky riffs, though most of these efforts land in the realm of pseudo-nuance – the almost-but-not-quite-clever ... in this century Houellebecq’s fiction has become less interested in how people become exhausted than in exhaustion as a world-view in itself. And though you can hardly blame a novelist for following an impulse, you can no more blame his readership for a feeling of decreasing excitement about where he may head next.
However limited Houellebecq’s creative imagination, his novels have a journalistic knack of chiming with events, and there is a Frexity feel to much of Serotonin ... a second problem for Houellebecq: a lack of intellectual gravity. His idol, Albert Camus, provided a philosophical hinterland for his affectless characters; Houellebecq, by contrast, has never risked realising his themes. He prefers to offer a sketch and let the reader do the rest. It’s possible that he has what it takes to write a fully worked-out novel of ideas, but the life-denying stance of his regular protagonist is the default position of the author. Many great novels have a main character with a nihilistic world view, but to take the same nihilistic attitude towards your own text is dangerous ... The best thing about this novel is Shaun Whiteside’s translation into toneless, gliding English.
Michel Houellebecq might be the most brilliant and maddening French writer alive. Bleak, pessimistic, and full of black humor ... Without much in the way of plot, Serotonin is mostly a platform for Florent-Claude’s reminiscences and musings. Sometimes he’s funny...He makes a few astute observations about French society, too ... On the whole, though, moments of insight and humor in Serotonin are too few and far between. As usual, Houellebecq devotes pages and pages to vulgar descriptions of sex ... There are also episodes of beastiality and pedophilia, which seem calculated to shock and therefore don’t. The bigger problem is that Florent-Claude doesn’t seem interested in thinking too hard about his old relationship with Camille, why it mattered to him, and why he lost it. His mind wanders around like he himself wanders over the French countryside: never getting anywhere ... Perhaps it’s an exercise in fitting form to content. A numb and distracted narrator tells a numb and distracted story. But if so, then Houellebecq the novelist pays a price ... It’s hard not to feel about the novel the way Florent-Claude feels about his life: it should have been better ... Still, Houellebecq is always worth reading because he confronts his readers with fundamental questions ... Houellebecq’s pessimism is so deep and relentless that he seems to be taunting us, all but daring us to draw different conclusions ... Perhaps it’s best to understand Houellebecq as a dystopian novelist whose grim visions of the future are not technological but moral. He takes certain existing values and imagines what society would be like if only those values reigned. If the world keeps living down to his jaundiced view of it, that isn’t on him. It’s on us.
Florent-Claude knows he is damned. He also knows that his damnation, that of a materially well-to-do but diminutive, sexually frustrated white male, will evoke the pity of precisely no one. His case is deplorable, and much of Serotonin feels like an exercise in compassion for a man whose abjection wobbles between sincerity and self-indulgence ... the novel manages to be prescient vis-à-vis France’s current political controversies, and it is in this respect that Houellebecq once again puts on the mantle of a literary prophet ... Houellebecq...is too subtle a writer to produce a novel of mere political observation, and Serotonin, whatever its populist flair, is, more significantly, a novel about loss, damnation, and the pitiless indifference of both political and natural processes. It is also a novel about compassion ... Perhaps most provocatively...Serotonin challenges its readers to soften their hearts toward those among us who are refused official pity ... Like all of Houellebecq’s work, Serotonin is, at times, hilarious, sexually graphic, and shockingly irreverent. But it is also a novel of moral seriousness, daring us to increase our compassion in proportion to the seeming loathsomeness of those to whom it is owed.