The controversial French novelist returns with a tale about Florent-Claude Labrouste, a professionally and romantically unsuccessful agricultural engineer who medicates himself to cope with the soul-crushing mundanity of day-to-day city life.
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.