by Michel Houellebecq
Review by Chris LaCroix
I walked up to the counter at one of the busiest bookstores in Seattle and asked the three guys at the registers what the most controversial book they had going at the moment was. I expected each of them to start a frenzied list of outrageous works, perhaps something that was being banned in libraries across the country, or something that had gotten its author shipped out of their country. Or maybe a new social and economic theory promoting subsistence wages and McMansions. Maybe even a children’s book that had some LGBTQ+ themes that weren’t to everyone’s liking. Instead, they all tilted their heads a little, looked back and forth to one another, opened their mouths as though about to speak, but then closed them, and put their fingers to their lips in further contemplation. Eventually, one said, “I know a book I wish we didn’t have on the shelves!” That ended up being a book in support of our illustrious leader Donald Trump, and it was not, in fact, on the shelves. After several more minutes of prompting questions and uncomfortable pauses, another of them said, “Oh, there is this one, I haven’t read it, but the author is controversial.” I ended up with Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq.
Michel Houellebecq and his cadre of Frenchmen are worth a discussion, given their nihilist bent on the world. But, I’m not going to go into this work with that in mind. The lens here is “the most controversial book of the moment” as clumsily stumbled upon with those booksellers.
What qualifies as controversial is its own controversial topic. Often the themes that cause controversy are drug use or exaltation, graphic violence, sexual depictions, or theories that question religious norms. This is a small, quiet list, but it covers most of the problem areas people have. And Serotonin has subject matter that fits in most of these categories. Most notably: a scene of bestiality, an episode of pedophilia, and a strange twist on Oedipal issues where a child is nearly murdered. And I contend that none of these qualify to make this book controversial. In fact, I don’t think there is much to cause outright controversy at all. Perhaps disdain, perhaps exhaustion - but not controversy.
Bestiality! Pedophilia! Not controversial!?! Nope. Because they’re just blatant shots at causing controversy, not actual controversy.
Florent-Claude Labrouste, our protagonist and narrator, is a middle-aged man in a high paying government position of little consequence who is bored with his job, life, loves, future, and past. Within the first few pages we listen as Florent-Claude creeps on some girls at a gas station in Spain, fetishizing their breasts and butts and potential sexual openness. He’s aware of his great wealth of practical knowledge in the world and imagines how awestruck they are with his ability to help them put more air in the tires of their car.
In this first scene, we have the tone of nearly the entirety of the rest of the novel: massive misogyny, perceived superiority even outside of gender issues (he’s driving a Mercedes G-wagon), and disdain for all and anything that doesn’t meet his standards. A wealthy, white man who’s bored of his privilege. How provocative!
Later our narrator finds a video of his longtime partner engaging in sex with dogs, which he discovers while snooping around her computer. This partner is formed as a shell, or bauble. She has no character, no arc, no growth, no presence, besides being a source of boredom for Florent-Claude. And the discovery of this bestiality video is not altogether different from the other sexual escapades he does sanction, and participate in, with her (orgies, bukkake, etc.). But this moment does create the space for the focus of the rest of the novel: going off the grid and living comfortably with easy access to food and alcohol and no obligations to anyone or anything.
The rest of the book is, more or less, an exploration of his romantic past. In this exploration there is interesting content. He contemplates the nature of his failures and shortcomings. He comes to terms with why different relationships ended. He has deep, thoughtful meditations on the nature of love. And all these points of profound insight inevitably get nullified by his current inability to actually learn anything from any of it. He pinpoints a problem, identifies and acknowledges it, then moves along without modifying his behaviors or thoughts in any way.
Through these scenes it could be argued that our narrator has access to redemption, that by considering the ways he and others have shaped his life, he has made a space for pathos, for a way for the reader to have justifiable sympathy for his plight.
However, these scenes of possible redemption begin early, and along the way Florent-Claude witnesses a man making sex tapes with a 12-year-old in a cabin in the woods and does nothing, and instead thinks about shooting the son of one of his past loves so he might be the focus of all her attention if he reconnects with her.
No. No redemption for you.
Now, it is suggested by the blurbs on the book jacket that this whole thing is a satirical approach to modern life in the EU. That depression is all that exists after the glut of consumerism and access to all desires and pleasures wears you out.
For satire to be effective, it needs to be clear that the work is, indeed, satirical. In Fight Club satire is achieved by the revelation of a split personality. In The Handmaid’s Tale satire is achieved through the setting of an alternate world. In Serotonin there is little to signify that the work is satirical besides the utter complacency and thoughtlessness of the main character. It’s not enough. The closest comparison I can make is to the music video for “Smack My Bitch Up” by Prodigy. This is a first-person perspective of a drug-fueled night of debauchery. What makes this work have an element of social commentary in the final moments of the video where it is revealed that the whole night was passed by a woman, not a man, as would be assumed by the content throughout. Serotonin lacks this turn, lacks anything to question the intent of the narrative. In so doing, the only controversy that arises is that of trying to pass the work off as satire. In the end it’s just another privileged man performing all the acts that so many are, rightly, being more and more critical of. And there are already plenty of options to choose from for that.