Serotoninby Roger Childs

Houellebecq has once again managed to put his finger on modern France’s (and Western) society’s wounds, and it hurts. —The Economist

A controversial writer

Michel Houellebecq (pronounced ‘Wellbeck’) is regarded by some as the bête noir of French writing and by many as a cultural icon. He is possibly France’s best-selling author and is highly regarded in political circles as his Légion d’honneur award testifies. 

He exploded on to the literary world with Atomized, a story about two dysfunctional brothers, one of whom has sex on the brain and the other who has great difficulty with the female population. He followed this up with Platform, a novel about sex tourism and a bombing in Southeast Asia. (Coincidently, this was shortly before the Bali bombings.) More recently Submission postulated a France of the future where a Muslim party links up with the right wing Front National in an election, and subsequently political life and Gallic culture change dramatically.

HouellebecqHouellebecq has been criticised for his male characters regarding women primarily as sex objects and for his bursts of explicit language. However, all his books have a strong philosophical element, as well as poetry; scientific, social and political observations; interesting detail on French culture and history, and strong plot development. 

He is a very honest, and challenging writer, who unashamedly tells it how it is and once again in Serotonin he confronts the reader with plenty of interesting ideas on the problems of present day France and the future. 

The farmers are revolting

His main characters are always males with personal problems, and this time it is middle aged Florent-Claude Labrouste. He is a sad case as he constantly reflects on his stupidity in betraying the only women he ever really loved. 

As the story opens he has a Japanese girl friend who he despises, and he contemplates ditching her along with his prestigious job with the Ministry of Agriculture. He gets some relief from his misery in a pill called Captorix which is an anti-depressant. It alters the brains releases on serotonin – sometimes called the “happy chemical” – but one of the side effects is a reduced sex drive.

He leaves his girl friend and his job in Paris and catches up with a farmer friend in Normandy, where he is thrust into the midst of a local economic crisis. The small farmers are going to the wall because of European Union agricultural policies and the impact of globalisation. They mount a protest …

In top form

The story teller, Florent-Claude, is flawed and self doubting, but he is an intelligent and perceptive thinker, and his observations challenge the reader to take a position on topics such as:

  • medical and drug issues
  • agricultural marketing
  • grooming teenage girls
  • depression
  • small communities and globalisation.

At 309 pages this is a very manageable novel and Houellebecq shows his usual fluency in keeping the story moving along with interesting detail on the geography and culture of France and the complexities of Florent-Claude’s history of personal relations.

As Europe is currently seeing rural communities suffering from the growth of large scale agribusiness and regional decline, along with rising levels of depression and mental illness, Serotonin touches plenty of raw nerves.