On the back cover of his latest novel, Sérotonine, Michel Houllebecq is described as a ‘novelist, essayist and poet read the world over’. One group of critics views him as an enfant terrible grown up to be France’s great polemicist. Another views his books as racist, sexist and bigoted. Looking day increasingly like a late stage Phil Spector, Houellebecq – who himself was once the vocalist for a pop outfit – increasingly proposes a third option: what if he is just taking the piss?
The plot of Sérotonine will be familiar to any recent reader of Houellebecq’s work: a middle aged depressive narrator gradually withdraws from the world. His withdrawal is accelerated by a drug prescription which helps the narrator’s depression (providing the serotonin of the title), but removes his sex drive. Half-heartedly stalking the women he did previously have relationships with, the narrator looks to these past relationships to try and explain his present unhappiness. Unable, as indeed any Houellebecqian male character always is, to view women as friends or anything other than sexual entertainers, these encounters give no answers. Such a narrative obviously demands something to keep the reader interested. Houellebecq’s traditional solution to this, minute sexual descriptions, often with a deeply sadistic tinge, play a lesser role in this novel. The character’s increased sexlessness forces Houellebecq to look for other ways to disturb, and this is where the truly unpleasant parts of the novel enter, particularly through various descriptions of paedophilia. For late Houellebecq violence on children, sexual and physical, provides the only escape from his own writer’s block.
The most frequent justification for Houellebecq’s later work is that it is uniquely prophetic: his book set in Bali just preceded the bombings there, his novel about Islamism in France was featured on the cover of Charlie Hebdo the day it was attacked by armed terrorists. This latest novel already boasts its own similar claim, in this case that it predicted the amorphous movement of the gilets jaunes. An old school friend of the narrator, an aristocrat who has dedicated his life to farming, ends up shooting himself in the middle of the road at a mass farmers protest. Yet the book is mainly an account of a well paid functionary, who is cynically aware of the issues facing his old friend but uninterested in any change whatsoever in a system that he has profited from his whole life.
A sole redeeming element in the book is its description of objects. As in The Map and the Territory (2010), where descriptions of cameras and the technical aspect of photography proved surprisingly interesting, the fixation on the technical sides of guns and shooting offers welcome relief from the rest of the novel. It is a strange place to have reached for an internationally celebrated author, where his readers most look forward to minute descriptions of scopes, barrels and bullets. Other than this, the book is joyless, the ideas tawdry, the vision blinkered. Houellebecq is not the writer we need, but perhaps the writer we deserve.