After the strains of our most recent International Booker Prize journey (the longest of this year’s trips) and the surplus of chocolate you may have indulged in, you’re probably wanting something a little briefer, and lighter, today. Sadly, though, while this one is certainly a far shorter stay, I’m not convinced that it’ll be any less stressful, and many readers may end up feeling rather down after some time in the company of today’s protagonist. Still, I do have one piece of good news for you – we have some pills for that…
Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq
– William Heinemann, translated by Shaun Whiteside
What’s it all about?
Florent-Claude, a Parisian in his mid-forties, is not a happy man. Quite apart from deeply disliking his own name, he has spent decades in jobs he doesn’t really care about and fighting battles he knows he can’t win with agricultural reformers. In order to combat the depression he feels, his doctor has prescribed him with Captorix, a new form of anti-depressant that increases the body’s supply of serotonin, and even if loss of libido seems a high price to pay for being able to carry on ‘normally’, it’s one Florent-Claude is more than happy to pay.
But, of course, that doesn’t mean his problems have disappeared, and one day he decides it’s time for a change. He gives notice for the lease on his swanky apartment and simply vanishes, leaving his beautiful, young Japanese girlfriend behind, intending to spend some time by himself to consider what to do next. A trip to the countryside to see an old friend ensues, but the ghosts of the past continue to haunt him, making his present even more unbearable. Yes, the Captorix is keeping him sane, and alive, but he begins to wonder whether that’s what he really wants.
Serotonin makes for a slightly rambling novel of a very modern mid-life crisis, told in the slightly detached voice of a man who is completely over it all, and has been for quite some time:
To tell the truth I was in the same situation, apart from the fact that my workload wasn’t excessive, and basically everyone was in the same situation; our student years are the only happy ones, when the future seems open, when everything seems possible, and after that adulthood and a career are only a slow and progressive process of ending up in a rut.
p.127 (William Heinemann, 2019)
While his prescription drugs enable him to suppress his emotions, allowing him to continue along his way, life has finally caught up with him, and he no longer feels able to simply carry on with his life in its current form.
Yes, this is another novel saying (to quote a famous philosopher) that modern life, well, it’s rubbish, and Florent-Claude isn’t the only one struggling to hold on for tomorrow. Part of the novel is spent on a visit to his friend, Aymeric, a farmer struggling with changing realities and the breakdown of his marriage, and through the two friends we see how society itself has changed. The flashbacks to Florent-Claude’s work show how agricultural progress and advances are slowly crushing the life out of farmers, with inexorable and unavoidable suffocation the result. When the inevitable happens, the choice is between simply giving up (as Florent-Claude does) or taking matters into your own hands.
However, as Serotonin progresses, we see that there’s more to our friend’s sadness than mere existential ennui. The initial sexual passages give way to more nostalgic, romantic stories as our friend reflects on past relationships. His trip to Normandy is not just a trip to see Aymeric (and an excuse to escape from his current girlfriend), but also an opportunity to revisit a place where one of his only real relationships began. As he wanders around the town he used to live in, it becomes a kind of valedictory tour to his libido and his emotions as he ponders what might have been – if he hadn’t stuffed it up, of course…
Serotonin is enjoyable in places, with Whiteside doing excellent work on Florent-Claude’s bitter, jaded, world-weary voice, and there is a lot to like about its rather bleak story. However, let’s face it, there’s an elephant in the room (or rather, for those who have read the book, a pack of over-excited dogs…), which means that at times it doesn’t make for pleasant reading. Surprisingly, given my preference for fiction in translation, I’d never read any of Houellebecq’s work before this, but I’d certainly got the impression that he was a writer to be wary of – on the evidence of this book, that’s definitely the case.
The style brings to mind someone like Martin Amis, with the protagonist’s slightly arrogant, nasty undertones, and very early on we encounter throwaway comments full of casual sexism and racism, as well as national stereotyping:
I suffered rebuffs from the English (which wasn’t very serious, you’re never well received by the English – they are almost as racist as the Japanese, like a lite version of them), but also from the Dutch, who obviously didn’t reject me out of xenophobia (how could a Dutch person be xenophobic? That’s an oxymoron: right there: Holland isn’t a country, it’s a business at best)… (p.24)
Of course, it isn’t always pleasant to read, but nobody’s pretending that all characters need to be likeable, and Florent-Claude’s obnoxious nature is an integral part of the book.
What really mars the narrative though is Houellebecq’s insistence on throwing in shocking scenes that may well have many readers simply abandoning the book there and then. It’s almost as if he’s playing up to a reputation, thumbing his nose at readers and reviewers alike by deliberately setting out to shock and disgust, whether it’s appropriate or relevant to the story or not. The videos he discovers, the birdwatcher he spies on – it’s just not worth it. Who let the dogs out? Houellebecq, apparently…
Which is a shame, because there’s a perfectly good book in there, a story of late-stage capitalism and its effect on both society and our psyche, and there were times when I found myself enjoying my time roaming the French provinces in Florent-Claude’s company. Sadly, though, there’s always something disturbing just around the corner, and by the time Serotonin reaches its fairly bland ending, most readers will have given up on him a long time ago.
Although, perhaps that’s the point…
Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
No. Let’s move on.
Why didn’t it make the shortlist?
I’m rather surprised it made the longlist. I can see why some judges might have considered it at least worthy of consideration, given Houllebecq’s stature and past works, but I suspect someone put their foot down and vetoed the book before things got out of hand. And, to be honest, even if that wasn’t the case, there were many better books on the longlist to choose from, so I’m happy the judges decided not to go back for a third look at Florent-Claude’s woes.
After a slightly depressing French holiday, then, it’s time for something very different, a global journey with a South-American flavour. In these times of social isolation and distance communication, it’s perhaps apt that the next stage of our journey sees us engaging with technology and how it can redefine relationships. Best of all, we’ll even get a fluffy toy as a bonus…
…just be careful what you say, and do, in its presence…