Serotonin

Michel Houellebecq is the biggest name on the International Booker long list but fame means little in translated fiction awards. Though the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was won in its early years by Orhan Pamuk and Milan Kundera, since then the prize (and the Man Booker International which followed) has tended to favour the more, as yet, unheralded. (Most recently, Knausgaard twice failed to make it as far as the short list). It seems unlikely that Serotonin (translated by Shaun Whiteside) will buck this trend as it’s a novel which holds little appeal.

Its central character, Florent-Claude Labrouste, is a self-pitying, middle-aged Frenchman who spends the novel reflecting on the women he has, in varying ways, abandoned over the years, even when they made him happy. “My life,” he says, “is ending in sadness and suffering,” and, never one to underplay his own emotions:

“I was going through a very difficult time, there are people who kill themselves for less.”

One difficulty is extricating himself from his current relationship with a Japanese woman, Yuzo, who he can clearly no longer stand:

“The weekends were always torture, but otherwise I could almost go for weeks without meeting Yuzo.”

If this raises the question of why Labrouste embarked on the relationship in the first place, that is easily answered:

“She had been available for sex on a more or less constant basis, and at the time I had deduced that she was in love with me.”

When he leaves her (which he does simply by becoming ‘voluntarily missing’ – that is, by walking out on her without telling her or giving her any indication of where he is going) he speculates as to whether she might become a prostitute. For Labrouste love and sex are not simply related but symbiotic: as he explains in detail (largely, as he says, for the benefit of women) “women have difficulty understanding what love is for men” as men can only really demonstrate love through sex, “having hardly any other means of showing it.” Therefore:

“…the happiness of the phallus becomes a goal in itself for the woman.”

All his relationships therefore are to some extent measured by the sexual skills of the woman, and, as he reminisces, we must brace ourselves for these often repetitive descriptions. His poignant departure from Kate (“How could a man who had known Kate turn away from her?”), left crying on a railway platform, contains the less than romantic line:

“…she had fucked and sucked me with all her might and her might was great at the time…”

Despite this he is soon ignoring her messages and sleeping with someone else. In later relationships his unfaithfulness is not so much the problem as his inability to sacrifice himself in any way, continually tempting Claire to live with him in the house he loves in Normandy when he knows she cannot leave Paris because of the career she wants to pursue. Again, sex is at the heart of the relationship and, when he meets her again, he worries that that was all there was:

“…it was frightening to think that maybe there had in fact only been sex.”

Even as he revisits these women his view is phallocentric:

“I wanted to see, once again, all the woman who had honoured it.”

Camille is the final woman he returns to, concocting a bizarre plan to win her back (that we are perhaps meant to think is a result of the Serotonin tablets of the title). In terms of his egocentricity, this is believable, but it less credible that he should care about anyone else enough to act so desperately: he is a man entirely without passion.

Mixed in among this is a subplot about French agriculture which involves a violent farmer’s protest, and some niche pornography (Yuzo and a dog; a paedophile whose house he breaks into to view (and describe) a video of the occupant with a ten-year-old girl). Both feel old-fashioned.

Far from being radical, this strikes me as a typical literary novel: a middle-aged, well-educated white man feeling sorry for himself about all the supposed opportunities for happiness he has missed, without any care for the happiness of the women involved. This is perhaps what makes it so dull. It is a strange inclusion in a list that is otherwise exciting and diverse.

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9 Responses to “Serotonin”

  1. International Booker Prize 2020 Long List | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Shaun Whiteside from French (William Heinemann) […]

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    You know, I really can’t think of any reason I might want to read this author….. :s

  3. Tony Says:

    Yep. Moving on…

  4. JacquiWine Says:

    Having never read Houllebecq, I can’t say that this is going to encourage me to do so in the foreseeable future! Good to know that I haven’t been missing out. 😉

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