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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Michel Houellebecq

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To purchase Serotonin

Title: Serotonin
Author: Michel Houellebecq
Genre: Novel
Written: 2019 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 309 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Serotonin - US
Serotonin - UK
Serotonin - Canada
Sérotonine - Canada
Sérotonine - France
Serotonin - Deutschland
Serotonina - Italia
Serotonina - España
  • French title: Sérotonine
  • Translated by Shaun Whiteside

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Our Assessment:

B : much of what can be/is expected from Houellebecq, but also surprising restraint

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 17/1/2019
Evening Standard . 10/1/2019 David Sexton
Le Figaro . 27/12/2018 Sébastien Lapaque
Financial Times . 20/9/2019 Boyd Tonkin
Frankfurter Allg. Zeitung . 5/1/2019 Jan Wiele
The Guardian . 20/9/2019 James Lasdun
Literary Review . 10/2019 Houman Barekat
Le Monde . 27/12/2018 Jean Birnbaum
NZZ . 7/1/2019 Roman Bucheli
New Statesman . 25/9/2019 Leo Robson
The NY Times . 18/11/2019 Dwight Garner
The Observer . 29/9/2019 J.Thomas-Corr
The Spectator . 28/9/2019 Douglas Murray
Sunday Times . 22/9/2019 Sebastian Faulks
The Telegraph . 15/4/2019 Simon Heffer
The Times . 17/9/2019 James Walton
TLS . 5/3/2019 Henri Astier
World Lit. Today A Winter/2020 Josh Allan

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)he novelist’s wit, and his skill at shifting from the quotidian to the existential, are intact. (...) Overhyped he may be, but Mr Houellebecq has once again managed to put his finger on modern French (and Western) society’s wounds, and it hurts." - The Economist

  • "Sérotonine reads at times dangerously close to self-parody, just another serving of Houellebecq’s now familiar style, cutting between brand names and sweeping generalisations, exhilarating in its nihilism, often very funny and always enjoyable but now perfectly stylised. Yet the anger he expresses here about the destruction of the deep France that he loves could not be more to the point, reflecting deep despair about what is happening now." - David Sexton, Evening Standard

  • "His dyspeptic moronity is slightly alleviated by the pharmacological crutch of a new antidepressant that boosts his serotonin levels. After so many previous outings, however, this first-person persona puts you in mind not so much of Albert Camus as Alan Partridge. (...) Houellebecq keeps his own pages turning briskly. Yet they open on to scenes familiar from his own back catalogue. Self-imitation takes over: all his greatest hits, now shorn of the thrill of novelty. This connoisseur of 1970s rock giants will surely know the problem. Houellebecq has turned into his own tribute act. " - Boyd Tonkin, Financial Times

  • "How to describe these crass, underpowered, chronologically bewildering opening sections ? Shtick seems the best word. (...) Houellebecq has a sociological curiosity few other novelists possess, and his more considered observations are still worth paying attention to. (...) Out of this feeble excuse for a hat, Houellebecq has once again pulled, if nothing warm and fluffy, something at least dangerously alive." - James Lasdun, The Guardian

  • "Serotonin reads like a cautionary tale about dissipated manhood, the kind of thing any self-respecting Guardian reader can get behind. (...) Whatever one thinks of his views, Houellebecq must be commended for his acute rendering of the intrinsically melancholic nature of chauvinism. Houellebecq’s portrait of the reactionary id is all the more convincing for being riddled with contradictions, echoing the intellectual incoherence that has characterised Europe’s nativist surge." - Houman Barekat, Literary Review

  • "(S)einen Lesern zeigt Houellebecq mit dem Buch den Finger, indem er sie da blossstellt, wo sie ihm auf den Leim gehen. So gesehen hat Michel Houellebecq tatsächlich einen brillanten Roman geschrieben." - Roman Bucheli, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "At times, Serotonin can seem like a purely rhetorical exercise, a sort of homage to the varieties of comic juxtaposition: high and low, seedy and grand, blasé and horrific. (...) But a style of narration that hopes to be constantly confounding is more or less doomed to failure. Houellebecq being Houellebecq, the book also comes pitted with dinky riffs, though most of these efforts land in the realm of pseudo-nuance -- the almost-but-not-quite-clever. " - Leo Robson, New Statesman

  • "(A)n exhausted and exhausting book. It makes you wonder if he has played out his string as a fiction writer. (...) Solipsistic, sex-obsessed and apathetic, Florent-Claude is an archetypal Houellebecq (pronounced WELL-beck) male. This writer’s characters are, in their way, moral beacons for our era. In nearly any situation, one can ask “What would a Houellebecq man do?” and perform the opposite. It is enjoyable, and useful, to have a collective anti-mensch. (...) Like bleach-burned sheets, it seems thin and worn. Someone has been in this motel room all night, strewing scurrilities." - Dwight Garner, The New York Times

  • "Perhaps for Houellebecq’s male admirers, there is something redemptive about someone performing their worst selves on the page, revelling in that dark part of their souls that they delete from their internet caches. (...) But I struggled to detect any bravery. As a writer, Houellebecq is as sloppy and cowardly as his narrator, vaguely gesturing towards ideas without ever seeing them through. (...) Serotonin soon becomes banal and predictable, a novel whose universality you immediately begin to question." - Johanna Thomas-Corr, The Observer

  • "Houellebecq writes with such facility and humour that it can look easy. Yet how many other novelists can make you moan, laugh and keep reading like he does ? He deserves his reputation as the novelist who most understands our age, most reviles it, and may well come to represent it best." - Douglas Murray, The Spectator

  • "(I)n his latest novel, Sérotonine, he has surpassed himself. Houellebecq does not just portray depression: he makes the reader experience what it feels like. The jacket should come with a mental health warning. (...) Sérotonine is both his most desolate and his funniest book. (...) Houellebecq has a gift for encapsulating the spirit of the time. (...) His eloquence is devoid of intellectual rigour and literary polish. His style -- with its platitudes, colloquialisms and sentences strung together without full stops -- mimics spoken French. (...) On one subject, however, the novel is serious, or at least as serious as Houellebecq is capable of being: religion." - Henri Astier, Times Literary Supplement

  • "As audacious as it is effective, this may be Houellebecq’s most impressive work yet." - Josh Allan, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Serotonin is narrated by Florent-Claude Labrouste, forty-six when he begins his account. He complains about his name, of course, in typical Houellebecqian fashion ("not only do I find the combination 'Florent-Claude' ridiculous, but I find each of its elements disagreeable in itself"), but it is a barely necessary marker, the character's interactions as he progresses on the journey chronicled in this account so limited that barely anyone has occasion or reason to address him, by name or otherwise, and we practically never see it employed; as so often with Houellebecq, Serotonin is an intensely self-focused narrative, dominated by the 'I'.
       When the novel begins, Labrouste is in a thoroughly unsatisfying and obviously doomed relationship -- it's: "in its terminal phase -- nothing could save it, and besides that wouldn't have even been desirable" -- with a Japanese woman twenty years his junior, Yuzu. He has a job that pays reasonably well, an expert under contract with the Ministry of Agriculture, and quite a bit of inherited money in his bank account, but he's rather fed up with it all. As he admits, he's a pretty pathetic soul:

I have only ever been an inconsistent wimp and I'm now forty-six and I've never been capable of controlling my own life. In short, it seemed very likely that the second part of my life would be a flabby and painful decline, as the first had been.
       There's a strong fatalistic streak to Serotonin. Already early on, Labrouste suggests: "God had always disposed of me as he wished", and repeatedly he comments on others' downward spirals and falls as inevitable. To him it's clear:
Had he had a choice ? Does anyone have a choice ? I have my doubts on the matter.
       Yet despite the underlying fatalism, Serotonin is very much a novel of would-be action (albeit with an emphasis on would-be ...), Labrouste at least going through the motions of taking matters into his own hands, and acting. Of course, where that gets him .....
       Labrouste does (literally) abandon Yuzu -- along with his apartment and job. He conveniently has enough money in the bank to live more or less comfortably for quite a while; he has no real personal ties -- friends -- and certainly his relationship with Yuzu is easily simply broken off. He also has few possessions: twenty years earlier, at the point of a similar rupture: "all of my earthy possessions could be contained in a suitcase", and he has accumulated little more since, leaving the scene with a suitcase and not a single personal memento; what little there was of accumulated past and experience: "was all on my MacBook Air, a thin paralleliped of brushed aluminium; my entire past weighed 1,100 grammes".
       He first moves into a hotel in Paris -- itself a challenge, since one of his requirements is being able to smoke, and few establishments still permit that --, then travels to Normandy, before eventually returning to Paris where, after even his hold-out hotel stamps out all smoking, he buys himself and retreats into a small anonymous flat.
       For all his effort at breaking with the past and moving on more or less unencumbered, Labrouste, in fact, is heavily weighed down by it. Much of his account is devoted to recollections of the past, especially of his longer, deeper relationships with women -- and the chances at traditional domestic happiness that he torpedoed (generally, by sleeping with another woman). He meets up with one former girlfriend, Claire, and then practically stalks another -- the great love of his life, Camille. While a drunken get-together with Claire serves as a quick reminder and wake-up call that she was way too damaged goods -- too much like him, in fact -- Camille, now a veterinarian with a small-town practice, still seems like unchanged perfection, reminding Labrouste of just how badly he blew it, back when.
       Labrouste also seeks out a former schoolmate from their time at the French Agro, Aymeric d'Harcourt-Olonde -- who had been: "my only true friend" at the university. A true-blue-blood, whose family had vast holdings, Aymeric was the only one from their class that actually went into farming, rather than into agribusiness proper.
       By the time Labrouste visits him, Aymeric is yet another broken man. His herd of three hundred cows is a money-loser -- albeit one he can easily afford, as he just sells off the family's land whenever a cash infusion is needed (though that's of course also a tradition-destroying, emasculating last resort) -- and his wife's ambitious plan to turn the old castle on the property into a fancy hotel has only resulted in a diminished plan involving bungalows; in any case, his wife and his two daughters have left him. Egged on some by Labrouste, Aymeric joins with the local farmers to protest the latest threats to local farming -- barely sustainable in a globalized economy and age -- , leading to a a dramatic call to action, and a brief stand-off with the authorities (quickly, catastrophically resolved).
       Midway through the novel, Labrouste asks himself (as the reader likely also is wondering):
     But why drag myself to past scenes ? as the poet said; I want to dream and not weep, he added as if one had the choice.
       It drives home yet again the sense of inevitability about everything in Labrouste's life: he simply can't do otherwise. But clearly it is also about self- and re-assessment, a mid-life crisis of sorts, or at least a point in the ongoing crisis that is his life at which he considers what is possible. So he also diagnoses:
     Was I capable of being happy in solitude ? I didn't think so. Was I capable of being happy in general ? That's the kind of question, I think, that is best not asked.
       Dredging up the past reveals he had known great happiness, specifically in his promising relationship with Camille -- and it is to Camille and this possibility of happiness that he is drawn again. He seeks her out -- though keeping his distance -- observing her, then watching her creepily closely. He himself admits:
     In fact, it's from that moment that my behaviour starts to escape me, that I am reluctant to assign meaning to it, and that it manifestly begins to part company from ordinary morality and from ordinary reason, which I thought I shared until then.
       Briefly, he considers actually shaping his own fate, of taking actions that will determine his future. He plans it out carefully and precisely, and while it's fairly harebrained -- it seems extremely unlikely things could play out exactly as he hopes -- it is at least decisive. Eventually, he comes to the point where he has to make his move; he has his finger on the trigger, as it were. His choice, then, -- his fate, of course -- however comes as no surprise.
       Labrouste's journey is also marked by his use of -- reliance on -- Captorix, an anti-depressant he eagerly lets himself be prescribed. Among its side effects is impotence, and Labrouste's journey is also marked by his lack of arousal. He had enthusiastically engaged in a great deal of sex, but he doesn't seem to miss it much. (It's hard not to see this drug-induced impotence as something that he sees as a deserved punishment or penance, since it is a sexual transgression that led to the loss of the love of his life, Camille.)
       Labrouste does repeatedly go on in considerable detail about sex, but tellingly the most involved are voyeuristic scenes, Labrouste watching on a screen and not involved himself. They include him coming across (well, seeking out) videos of Yuzu engaging in a variety of sexual acts, as well the videos a pederast was taking of an about ten-year-old girl. (The girl, at least, is not too obviously (physically) violated in the scenes he watches, but Yuzu does get it on way too intimately with a couple of dogs, as Houellebecq insists on at least breaking a few taboos.) Indeed, much of Serotonin is voyeuristic, its narrator an observer -- often through binoculars ... -- rather than actor; he chooses repeatedly to remain literally on the sidelines.
       The Captorix seems to do its job -- clearly depressed ("I had no hopes and I was fully aware I had nothing to hope for"), Labrouste still long finds sufficient motivation to at least trudge along in one way or another -- but Houellebecq eventually also suggests another bio-chemical imbalance that is affecting Labrouste (leaving unclear, however, whether it is cause or effect): his doctor tells him that: "the quantities of cortisol that you're secreting are incredible" -- so incredible that:
I have the sense that you are, very simply, dying of sorrow.
       The fall-back on bio-chemical explanations (excuses), and then the balancing act with staying on or weening him off Captorix, seems a bit of an easy out, giving Labrouste the excuse he is looking for in not taking constructive action (like engaging with other human beings in any meaningful -- or just sexual -- way). Serotonin is very much a novel of resignation, and this just one more greater force that the character simply yields to.
       Labrouste is hopelessly fated for this sad destiny; indeed, Houellebecq even brings the Almighty into the mix, with a sprinkling of mentions and then a final assessment by Labrouste that suggests a surprisingly strong religious -- and specifically Catholic -- world-view (rather at odds with especially the sexual activity and attitudes that are presented). Always also hovering over Labrouste, as a possible looming fate -- but also as an expression of free will -- is suicide, which he repeatedly addresses -- so also when traveling at the most suicidal time of the year, Christmas and New Year's, or when reassuring, for example, one of his landlords when he rents an out-of-the-way place that would be ideal for the act. Suicide figures prominently in his life and the story, too, most notably in the fact that his parents were a double-suicide, his father terminally ill, his mother unwilling to live without him
       Houellebecq bites off a lot in Serotonin, but there's not quite enough chew. The story goes in a variety of directions, including in accounts of his various relationships, but rarely pushes far enough; as also with the story of the French farmers briefly organizing and taking a stand, Houellebecq builds up good narrative momentum, only for the episodes to rather fizzle out. Of course, this is appropriate for a narrator who, even though frequently on the move, is truly in no way going anywhere; as such the novel nicely reflects its protagonist. But ultimately Houellebecq offers too much lack of follow-through. He still manages to shock on the small scale, but draws back from taking the leap into the unthinkable -- even as he takes his story to the brink of it at one wonderful point.
       Labrouste's tone and expression, an almost dead-pan world-weariness (with a well placed light comic touch) that makes listening to his disturbing opinions bearable, are typical of Houellebecq's characters, and works well here too. Labrouste is profoundly unsympathetic and it's hard to imagine anyone enjoying Labrouste's company (extreme alcoholic excess seems the only way Labrouste can put up with anyone, and vice versa); the most unbelievable thing about the novel is that several women were actually in love with him (unlike Yuzu, whose relationship with him seems entirely plausible, which is presumably why Houellebecq devotes so much space to that story at the beginning of the novel). But Houellebecq also humanizes him some, and while he can't make him sympathetic, or even make readers care much about his fate (which feels all so predetermined from the start in any case), Labrouste's frank openness (and willingness to admit to the worst in himself and others, in a way few people would) does make the character intriguing enough to make his roving -- physical and mental, in present and past -- interesting enough to follow.
       Serotonin is a novel about contemporary white European males rendered impotent and the collapse of traditional order and hierarchies, the local bulldozed by the supranational, economic and social forces leaving a trail of the ruined (and of suicides) in their tracks, but it's also romantic novel. Labrouste had love, and he wonders whether it is possible for him again; as with its views on the state of the world and everything, much of the novel is surprisingly nostalgic -- with Labrouste clear-eyed enough, however, to realize that the past is lost and done for, for him and for the world.
       Serotonin isn't quite successful, but there's enough to it -- more in the bits and pieces than the whole -- to make for a worthwhile read. And, yes, all the usual Houellebecqian baiting and provocation -- sexual, political, and piles of political incorrectness -- as well as the humor (and a few pushing-the-limits scenes) are also to be found.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 September 2019

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Serotonin: Reviews: Michel Houellebecq: Other books by Michel Houellebecq under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See also the Index of French literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       French author Michel Houellebecq was born in 1958.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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