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Michel Houellebecq’s Fragile World

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Is man an animal? If there is a question that reverberates through the entire oeuvre of the French writer Michel Houellebecq, one presented with great emphasis in his most recent novel, Serotonin, it is this. The question can, of course, be qualified in various ways. One could add racial or cultural or class modifiers—Is the white man an animal? Is European man an animal? Is the bourgeois man an animal?—because those are the categories of “man” Houellebecq is interested in. But no matter how qualified, there is no getting away from the question in Serotonin. It echoes in small, solitary hotel rooms, on the luxurious driving seat of a Mercedes 4x4, on Parisian streets that appear empty of humanity, and along a Normandy countryside that seems bereft of nature. It is even expressed directly, toward the end of the novel, as the protagonist takes himself to a studio flat in the Parisian suburbs: “So I was now at the stage where the aging animal, wounded and aware of being fatally injured, seeks a den in which to end its life.”

The persona through which Houellebecq’s novel refracts and magnifies this question of man and his wounded animal nature is that of Florent-Claude Labrouste, a 46-year-old consultant for the French Agriculture Ministry. Independently wealthy, in a relationship with a Japanese woman 20 years younger than he, Florent decides to leave everything behind and attempt a life of anonymous invisibility. He quits his job, abandons his co-habitant, Yuzu, whom he detests, and begins a journey that is simultaneously a voyage into his inner self and an exploration of the state of contemporary France. Throughout, he is accompanied by a new wonder drug called Captorix, “a small, white, scored oval tablet” that fights depression by increasing the serotonin level in his blood but that also has the side effects of “loss of libido and impotence.”

A good part of this account takes places in standard Houellebecqian style. 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 (“AOP status,” “European AOCs,” “ABC and … ABC economic groups”) and brand names (Volvic, Mercedes, Coke Zero, Cruzcampo, Calvados). The former is invariably depicted as absurd, while the latter is rendered in a more varied mix where the narrator seesaws between repulsion and admiration for the endless inventiveness of global consumerism, sometimes registering both affects simultaneously, as in his description of “my MacBook Air, a thin parallelepiped of brushed aluminium; my entire past weighed 1,100 grammes.” To this, Houellebecq adds his trademark reactionary characterizations, marginalized groups always reduced to offensive stereotypes, women invariably reduced to body parts and types, with the milder renditions in this novel being “old queens,” “the dangerous classes,” “illegal Malians,” “tree hugger,” “rural Greek queer,” “a bunch of Romanians,” “moist parts,” “firm little breasts,” and “fat slut.”

It is a well-honed formula for Houellebecq, all the way down to the efforts to lend gravitas to this outlook through passing literary and philosophical references. Even though there is little about Florent, by his own admission, that marks him out as a deep thinker or as much of a reader, this slim novel is weighed down heavily with French and European classics: Schopenhauer, Catherine Millet, Georges Bataille, Blanchot, Cioran, Loti, Segalen, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Christine Angot, Zola, the Marquis de Sade, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, Arthur Conan Doyle, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Vladimir Nabokov, and, most surprisingly, the brilliant but nearly forgotten American science fiction writer Thomas M. Disch.

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.........

© New Republic