Creeps of Late Capitalism

In Serotonin, Michel Houellebecq maps the degradations of neoliberal notions of “progress” and “free trade” directly onto sexual politics.

Gili Ostfield
February 19, 2020
Auguste Leroux: Excerpt from lithograph from the 1920 edition of J.K. Huysmans’s À rebours

Discussed in this essay: Serotonin, by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Shaun Whiteside. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019. 320 pages.

FRENCH WRITER J.K. HUYSMANS’S AGAINST NATURE, a landmark novel of the 19th-century Decadence movement, follows a single character—the sickly Duc Jean des Esseintes—descended from a deteriorating and inbred ancient house, “with the men becoming progressively less manly.” The reader finds the world-weary nobleman gripped by a “universal contempt” for the “fools and scoundrels” who have infested the society in which he lives; he is convinced that this society is the source of his sickness. Even sleeping with women—his “one passion”—can no longer justify his existence within it, so he sells the family château and shuts himself in perfect solitude inside a villa where he can indulge in luxury and excess as he pleases. In the novel’s most famous scene, des Esseintes painstakingly chooses rare jewels and stones to encrust a tortoise’s shell; before he can enjoy his custom pet, the tortoise is crushed beneath their weight.

The reactionary aesthete at the center of Against Nature has captivated writers as various as Oscar Wilde, Paul Valéry, and, more recently, Michel Houellebecq. Houellebecq has been quite direct about Huysmans’s influence: the protagonist of his 2015 novel Submission is a Huysmans scholar who studies not only his novels but also his theologies. But Houellebecq’s newest novel, Serotonin—published in French last January, and out now in Shaun Whiteside’s English translation—goes a step further, featuring a protagonist who is essentially method acting des Esseintes. 

Unfortunately for Serotonin’s narrator, Florent-Claude Labrouste, he was not born an aristocrat. “I had no class, I just had money,” he whines early in the novel. We meet him in middle age, as he’s washing down a pill with the first of the day’s many cigarettes. The pill is Capton D-L, brand name Captorix—an antidepressant designed, in Florent-Claude’s assessment, for “allowing patients to perform afresh the major rituals of a normal life within a developed society.” These rituals are all that remain of Florent-Claude’s shell of a life, the rest of which he has forgone: inspired by a TV documentary called Voluntarily Missing, he has deleted his internet presence, abandoned his job, and quit his apartment without telling a soul where to or why. 

Not a soul, that is, except for the reader, to whom Florent-Claude monologues for the duration of the novel. He gives a formal yet raw introduction in which he reveals some key details about himself, including his name (“ridiculous”), his face (“clear angles and chiselled features”), and his disposition (“inconsistent wimp”). He has spent the past two years masturbating to the memory of a brief interaction with two young women at a gas station in Spain. Self-reporting inceldom could easily have completed the picture, but prior to his disappearance he was in fact in a sexless relationship with a Japanese cakeface half his age, to whom he enjoyed saying things like “get out of the way you fat slut.” (He made no effort to sleep with Yuzu; the celibacy was apparently voluntary.) After coming upon a series of salacious videos of Yuzu—gangbangs and bestiality both figure here—he discovered that he’s a cuck and deemed it necessary to disappear and, eventually, die. 

One result of obliterating his present life is that, for comfort, Florent-Claude has only the past to dwell on. Wistful attempts at reviving it lead him to sleep with an old girlfriend (the sex is no good; she’s grown fat), to stalk a different one (he not-so-briefly considers killing her son in order to win her back), and—to most instructive effect—to seek out the last friend he ever had. The two were close in agricultural school, 20 years prior. Florent-Claude remembers Aymeric d’Harcourt-Olonde as a grungy slacker with an extensive vinyl collection—and, crucially, as heir to his family’s château (“destroyed for a first time in 1204, then rebuilt in the middle of the thirteenth century”). Florent-Claude clearly had understood Aymeric’s life as the one he himself could have had, were he noble-born. Here, too, Florent-Claude is met with disappointment; Aymeric’s present reality is even bleaker than the narrator’s own. Aymeric is now an ailing farmer who holds to traditional (and, incidentally, relatively humane) farming practices, and who is periodically forced to sell off pockets of historic land to Chinese investors in order to feed his family. Most depressingly, his wife Cécile has taken their daughters and left him for a bourgeois pianist in London.

Florent-Claude is the novel’s anti-hero, but it is Aymeric who embodies its argument. He and his fellow Norman farmers are growing restless and angry at their shared plight, which is rapidly deteriorating in inverse proportion to the droning march of the free-market global economy. As is the nature of gradual decline, there have been few discrete events to catalyze a farmers’ uprising, and when they do attempt to organize, a doom-and-gloom attitude clouds their union meetings. Florent-Claude follows Aymeric to a particularly grave gathering, called in response to a devastating reduction in dairy prices by the state that resulted in a fellow farmer’s suicide. Aymeric and the farmers decide to finally take action, in the form of an armed blockade against dairy truck imports. The road blockade is not sustained for more than a day, but it does manage to make the news report on BFM, the largest cable news channel in France. This windfall affords the farmers the chance to make a public call to (literal) arms and leads to the novel’s climax, in which Aymeric shoots himself spectacularly on national television.

This act of martyrdom is not according to plan. Before sacrificing himself, Aymeric takes careful aim at each of the policemen, duly outfitted with riot gear and shields, before presumably conceding the futility of his cause. Perhaps he heard the echo of his friend’s voice in his ear; it was Florent-Claude who spoke against the action at the union meeting, pontificating about the relative might of the European Union to quash any feeble attempt to enact protectionist policies for farmers in France. Functionally speaking, Florent-Claude had been the only professional in the meeting, though he had wisely chosen, in that setting, to downplay the true nature of his two-decade career. Where, in the latter half of agricultural school, Aymeric had elected to study husbandry, Florent-Claude had chosen the “fake specialisation” (his words) of ecology, a track that got him hired at none other than Monsanto upon graduating. His disdain for the “pathological liars” who ran the company eventually drove him to leave for the French Ministry of Agriculture, which hired him to launch a task force to classify Norman cheeses according to the “lords of the Normandy trilogy”—that is, to inflate their value in the foreign exports marketplace. The spurious initiative was a failure, both in terms of boosting commerce and increasing market value, and was soon abandoned. “Things had always toppled at the last minute towards the triumph of free trade, towards the race for higher productivity,” Florent-Claude laments defensively, though he has no one left to listen, “who was I to imagine I could change the course of the world?”

WHEN SUBMISSION WAS PUBLISHED in France, Houellebecq appeared on the cover of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, declaring, “In 2022, I’m observing Ramadan!” This happened to be the very day of the terror attack at the magazine’s offices. Much was made of this seemingly prophetic coincidence, in France and abroad. (The novel depicts a near-future France controlled by an Islamic government, a treatment widely considered Islamophobic.) Four years later, Houellebecq appeared to repeat the trick, with Serotonin publishing on the heels of the gilets jaunes protests. The flashpoint for the gilets jaunes was a spike in fuel prices; in Houellebecq’s fictional insurrection, it’s a drop in dairy sale prices. The driving sentiment is the same: the working class in France keeps getting thrown under the bus. But while Submission is satire, cut-and-dry, imagining a worst-case scenario as the electoral compromise of a fragmented and reactionary body politic, Serotonin simply tracks an existing course to its logical endpoint. A string stretched to its limit is bound to snap. 

Serotonin is satire only to the extent that Florent-Claude is a cartoon. We are meant to believe that he was once relatively virtuous—an attentive boyfriend, a politically pure bureaucrat, a conscious environmentalist—the implication being that society has squashed him into his current contemptible state. Houellebecq is not exaggerating when he suggests that all Western men are being cucked, whether or not they know it. The plight of French agriculture typifies the point. When Florent-Claude appeals to the farmers to give up on defending their interests, he is looking at his sexless and soon-to-be-dead friend, gaining steam: “In short, what’s happening in French agriculture right now is a huge social plan, the biggest social plan in operation, but it’s a secret, invisible social plan, in which people disappear individually, in their corners, without ever providing a theme for a news item on BFM.” Or put more plainly: “Cécile had turned out to be a fat slut excited by life in London with a high-society pianist; and the European Union had also been a fat slut with that business about milk quotas.” How could these men possibly keep up?

Houellebecq has raged against the ideology of the European Union since its inception—Serotonin’s plot neatly arches from then until the present—earning him a healthy reputation as a reactionary. And here, as elsewhere, Houellebecq maps the neoliberal notions of “progress” and “free trade” directly onto sexual politics to make his claim that their cultural implications mirror the economic ones. It’s not that Houellebecq’s diagnosis of economic globalization gone rogue is wrong—if Serotonin reads as nostalgic for the ancien régime, that is chiefly because its class divisions were clearly demarcated, and no one was tricked into complicity with their own demise. Life under capitalism is functionally not much different, we are reminded, but now neoliberalism uses ideological force to obscure how it perpetuates the very crises it claims to solve. But if the farmers of Serotonin (and, in real life, the gilets jaunes) warrant sympathy, it’s because they have grown useless to society because of this sinister plot, not through any fault of their own; no one ever meant to hurt them—no one thought of them at all. Can the same really be said on behalf of Western men?

The Western man that Serotonin holds up for us is one who yearns for the past yet has no regrets. The love of Florent-Claude’s life, Camille, came and went 20 years ago; as he begins running out of ways to occupy his time, he takes the reader through the whole history of their relationship. They quickly settled in a house, kept by Camille “in a decidedly unfeminist sense,” but the relationship was still reduced to role play. He regrets nothing only because it could never have been otherwise, concluding ruefully that

I could have suggested that she give up her studies and become a housewife, my wife in fact, and in retrospect, when I think about it (and I think about it almost all the time), I think she would have said yes . . . But I didn’t, and I probably couldn’t have done. I hadn’t been formatted for such a proposition, it wasn’t part of my software; I was a modern man, and for me, like for all of my contemporaries, a woman’s professional career was something that had to be respected above all else—it was the absolute criterion, it meant overtaking barbarism and leaving the Middle Ages.

Houellebecq is not suggesting that women should get out of the workplace and back into the home (he made his aversion to this view clear enough in Submission, in which French women are required to do so, in a burqa no less). It’s more that he sees all intimate relations since the sexual revolution as a form of submission to cultural tyranny. 

It’s a shrewd strategy to set up the condemned in the form of a petulant creep, raising the question of whether the lowest among us still deserve dignity. But is a life lacking in sexual satisfaction (for men, naturally) really as ignominious as a life without sustainable living conditions? Houellebecq seems to suggest that it is. Florent-Claude is determined to circumvent such a fate—his psychiatrist thinks hiring 16-year-old Thai prostitutes could help; Florent-Claude knows this solution would be “OK for slightly pathetic guys,” but he “wasn’t one of them”—so he settles for a higher dosage of Captorix, which has the convenient side effect of suppressing his sex drive altogether. The implication is clear: if you are not free to be at your worst, better to opt out entirely. 

Gili Ostfield is a writer and organizer in New York.