Review: “Serotonin”

Can you die of sadness?

French provocateur and inveterate smoker Michel Houellebecq is determined to find out.

Houellebecq’s novel “Serotonin” swirls around Florent-Claude Labrouste’s self-imposed disquiet and disillusionment as he succumbs to a melancholic demise.

It’s easy to see the sickly, haggard and flatly prophetic Houellebecq in Labrouste, whose youthful Japanese paramour despises his existence, and his once-promising engineering career within the Ministry of Agriculture is now a fading ember.

In the desolation of his existence, a solitary solace emerges, a diminutive white oval – Captorix, the latest offering in the realm of antidepressants, a chemical manipulator of serotonin’s delicate dance within the recesses of the brain. A precursor to supposed happiness.

Armed with this pharmacological reprieve, Labrouste embarks on a pensive pilgrimage, forsaking the concrete loneliness of Paris for the rustic embrace of Normandy, a pastoral tableau of world-class artisanal cheeses marred by the relentless juggernaut of globalisation and the unforgiving edicts of European agricultural policies. Of course, love is lost and half-heartedly pursued and never regained as anything more than forgotten memories, as it often is in Houellebecq’s work. 

Penned by France’s most incendiary and prescient contemporary novelist, “Serotonin” unravels as a harrowing narrative of isolation, untold desire, and the torment of individualism. It serves as a searing indictment of late-era capitalism and rising service charges. All told in Houellebecq’s trademark brisk style, simultaneously mundane and righteous. Clarity above all.

“Serotonin” burns with exasperation, an exhilarating nihilism that is at once somber yet, often, startlingly amusing.

As always, Houellebecq forces us to confront the discomfort and pain that simmers beneath the veneer of our brittle civilisation.

If you need any proof, read the last chapter.

It’s a small white, oval, scored tablet.

It doesn’t create or transform; it interprets. It renders fleeting what was definitive; it renders contingent what was ineluctable. It supplies a new interpretation of life — less rich, less artificial, and marked by a certain rigidity. It provides no form of happiness, or even of real relief; its action is of a different kind: by transforming life into a sequence of formalities it allows you to fool yourself. On this basis, it helps people to live, or at least to not die — for a certain period of time.

But death imposes itself in the end: the molecular armour cracks, the process of decomposition resumes its course. It probably happens more quickly for those who have never belonged to the world, who have never imagined living, or loving, or being loved; those who have always known that life was not within their reach. Those people, and there are many of them, have, as they say, nothing to regret; I am not in that situation.

I could have made a woman happy. Well, two; I have said which ones. Everything was clear, extremely clear from the beginning, but we didn’t realise. Did we yield to the illusion of individual freedom, of an open life, of infinite possibilities?

It’s possible; those ideas were part of the spirit of the age; we didn’t formalise them, we didn’t have the taste to do that; we merely conformed and allowed ourselves to be destroyed by them; and then, for a very long time, to suffer as a result.

God takes care of us; he thinks of us every minute, and he gives us instructions that are sometimes very precise. Those surges of love that flow into our chests and take our breath away - those illuminations, those ecstasies, inexplicable if we consider our biological nature, our status as simple primates — are extremely clear signs.

And today I understand Christ’s point of view and his repeated horror at the hardening of people’s hearts: all of these things are signs, and they don’t realise it. Must I really, on top of everything, give my life for these wretches? Do I really have to be explicit on that point?

Apparently so.

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