Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq: A brief review

Michel Houellebecq has the distinction of being the best known contemporary French litterateur across the globe. Houellebecq had never hesitated to call a spade a spade in his works of art, be it his novels or poems. The latest offering Serotonin is almost prophetic in that it deals with a phenomenon in France that is topical at the time of release of the book. We are talking about the Yellow Vest protests that have rocked France towards the end of 2018. Houellebecq could not have anticipated such events unfolding so as to coincide with the release of the book. But the fact of this coincidence nevertheless gives more context and urgency to the central themes of the book. The decision by the author to not give interviews or have media interactions in the lead up to the publication has heightened intrigue among French literature aficionados as well as followers across the rest of the world. The French government’s bestowing of Legion d’honneur (the highest national award) to the author recently has added to the already burgeoning expectations.

Houellebecq had never hesitated to take strong political positions in his novels and Serotonin continues in this vein. The rise of the extreme right in the politics of several European nations – manifest in growing Euroscepticism, anti-immigrant stance, islamophobia, economic protectionism, distrust of free trade, etc, form the core engagements of the novel. An agricultural engineer’s inner musings, as he straddles his official duties with his personal disillusionment is the most prominent stream within the novel.

Houellebecq has once again displayed his uncanny ability to read geopolitical undercurrents and project them into the future. It is now part of the lore how two previous novels Submission and Platform demonstrated the phenomena of the rise of Islam in the West and the nexus of sex and terrorism respectively. Likewise, Serotonin is a perceptive demonstration of the most pressing sociopolitical issues of our times. Some of the themes in Serotonin are familiar to those acquainted with Houellebecq’s oeuvres. Individual alienation, disillusionment, obsession with sex, and longing for elusive love interlace larger political narratives on free trade and corporate-political nexus.

Politicians, ever so keen to gain political mileage and publicity have jumped onto a few casual remarks in the novel. Some of them have accused Houellebecq of denigrating rural France, based on an obscure line in the book that refers to the town of Niort as a cultural backwater. Houellebecq has also been attacked by critics for some of his familiar tropes, especially his obsession with  male sexuality. Prescient as he is in terms of anticipating geopolitical tipping points, the lead male characters in many of his books have remained within the framework of patriarchy and its attendant privilege. In light of numerous shocking revelations of sexual harassment that the #metoo movement has brought to the forefront, the explicit phallic imagery and objectification of women in the novel come across as insensitive. Even Houellebecq’s ardent supporters seem to have found this pattern distasteful. But as they say, one can hate or love Houellebecq, but simply cannot ignore him. His latest offering Serotonin keeps up this promise.