Michel Houellebecq (1958) launches in Serotonin a journalistic hook that will help possible sociological readings: the Captorix, an antidepressant pill that helps to release serotonin, responsible for our happy integration in the community, but that entails a fearsome side effect, the decrease of testosterone and the disappearance of the sexual appetite . Thus, articles can proliferate on the Serotonin as a portrait of a society in palliative care, crammed with painkillers and impotent; and without a doubt this is the desire of a polemicist like Houellebecq. Although perhaps we must clarify that Houellebecq is not exactly a polemicist, but the last incarnation of a romantic figure with a long tradition in French letters: the dandy. That is, the cynical, imperturbable, amoral and rare that performs an exercise of surplus value and devaluation of its public image and its work (voluntarily confused) as a symbol of the modern market society. A few verses from another dandy, Baudelaire, quoted at the climax of Serotonin, they help to look behind the hook. "Once his vintage made the heart, / living is an evil". After love, only unhappiness is possible. And there is another reading of the background of this radiography of the death of desire, so crude in its manners, but so romantic in its background: the nostalgia of a love like that of our parents ... And something else, of course.
At a gas station in Almeria, helping two girls in shorts To take the pressure of the wheels, Florent-Claude Labrouste, a 46-year-old agronomist, has a light: his life, apparently enviable, is not worth it. After returning to Paris, he leaves his job for the Government (intermediate between French agricultural products and Europe) and leaves his young Japanese girlfriend (he has just discovered his porn videos with the Parisian elites). Florent-Claude begins an escape from himself by the few hotels where they still allow smoking and reviews the chapters that have determined his failure. That is to say: Kate, Claire and Camille; his three "vintages of the heart".
Protagonists of technical profile, pornography, sex tourism, ascetic imperative, the end of Europe by an excess of regulations ... It is easy to recognize the debt of Serotonin with Lanzarote (2000), Platform (2001) or The possibility of an island (2005), and Houellebecq exaggerates here the caricature of his topics. But Serotonin it is intertwined, above all, with the sad and intimist (claustrophobic) portrait of his first two novels; when the writer performed, if I may say so, the somersault of his writing as an athlete and not as a mountebank. In some way Serotonin closes the sentimental education of the anti-hero of Extension of the battlefield (1994). Where he left that "prisoner of himself", locked in his skin and in a deep spleen popularized by the culture of leisure, now begins the descent into the underworld of the vulgarity of Florent-Claude.
Serotonin he also has the will of a training novel; it is demonstrated by the succession of remembrances of the protagonist: his three pure loves, his betrayals of his ideals as an agronomist. It is not one of Houellebecq's most elaborate novels, which sometimes weaves the minimum stitches of verisimilitude to allow him to intersperse his antimodern diatribe. However, you can afford it, and even self-parody: you know where you get when you open a book by Houellebecq and appreciate the familiarity of formulas repeated with grace. But also, once that agreement with the recognizable thing has been fulfilled, Serotonin it contains a master nucleus that is among the best that Houellebecq has written. Florent-Claude will spend Christmas with his friend Aymeric, an aristocrat who has returned to the field of his family to work the land; resumes, reversing, the relationship master and lackey. During this section, which occupies more than half of the novel, the self-referential joke disappears, humor becomes bitter; and the two plots, the end of Europe in the hands of the gentle monster of Brussels (the loss of agricultural quotas) and "the disappearance of the western libido", release their depth charges.
Houellebecq retakes a prestigious topoi of our time (think of the success of a movie like The great beauty): the requiem of the white and heterosexual male. For the narrator of Serotonin we approach again to a pre-romantic and "oral" time. If flesh defeated literature (Mann and Proust would be the swan song of courtly love), abstraction now defeats the body. It is interesting to analyze how Houellebecq works the metaphors, since it gives in the same root of this modern mutation of the symbols. It converts an abstract concept, say, the lack of desire, into a specific product, the Captorix. Then, following the logic of the market that gives products absolute values, convert a tablet into an allegory. Thus, without denying the potential of metaphors, it gives them new life and avoids their ambiguity (in which yes, for example, Marguerite Duras in The evil of death; same theme, different incarnation).
Serotonin It is a novel against the abstraction of the world and nostalgic for a culture of bodies: that smell, smoke and love. Houellebecq chooses a hero who reflects the miseries of culture, an underground man who laments the loss of something that may not have existed, a pure love, or perhaps just a "late adherence to the codes of the species." Thanks to this, it recovers cultural terrorism from the origins of romanticism, its hunger for reality.
Serotonin Michel Houellebecq. Translation by Jaime Zulaika. Anagram, 2019. 282 pages. 19.90 euros.