‘Fatalism and Fellatio” is the title the Süddeutsche Zeitung gave last fall to a scathing essay about Michel Houellebecq’s seventh novel, Serotonin. The reviewer assailed Houellebecq’s prose, despairing that even certain female critics should be thrilled by the musings of this “depressive sexist.” It was a familiar assessment. The 62-year-old Houellebecq (pronounced Wellabeck) is an eccentric. He makes passes at female journalists sent to interview him. He co-stars in curmudgeonly films with Gérard Depardieu. He directs pornographic films of his own. For a quarter century, he has been hailed in country after European country as a prophet, and just as widely dismissed as a charlatan. In this he resembles the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard, one of only a handful of living novelists who can claim a similar Europe-wide resonance: Many of those who read him don’t “get” him.
Americans may get him least of all. Except for a few weeks in 2015 when his novel Submission was invoked to explain a wave of French terror attacks, English-speakers have not embraced him. Perhaps that will change with Serotonin, in which a desperate protagonist seeks to keep the modern world at bay with every weapon at his disposal: sex and drugs and rock-n-roll, yes, but also populism, nostalgia, and religion.
Certain basic things that important novelists do, Houellebecq does not. Great novels usually concern the relationships, institutions, and ideals out of which the “bourgeois” social order is knit together—marriages, schools, jobs, piety, patriotism. But in our time, relationships fail to take root. Institutions fall apart. The visible social order seems not to be the real one. Many novelists limit their vision to those narrow precincts where the world still makes sense (or can be made to make sense) in the way it did to Balzac or Flaubert. Often these are contexts in which a set of rules has been bureaucratically imposed, or grandfathered in: a SEAL team in bestselling fiction, a university literature department in more arty work. Houellebecq is up to something different. He places his characters in front of specific, vivid, contemporary challenges, often humiliating and often mediated by technology: Internet pornography, genetic research, terrorism, prescription drug addiction. This technological mediation can make his characters seem isolated, and yet it is an isolation with which any contemporary can at least empathize. The Outsider is Everyman. Houellebecq’s reputation as a visionary rests on his depiction of what we have instead of the old bourgeois social order.
His emergence in 1994 was inauspicious. Until then he had been a saucy formalist poet with one book-length critical essay on H.P. Lovecraft to his credit. No mainstream critic was swept away by the slim novel he published that year called Extension du domaine de la lutte—which means, roughly, “The Widening Battlefront.” What was distinctive about it was that it pluckily presented as protagonists the kind of people novels don’t get written about: a pair of second-tier technicians sent to give corporate computer tutorials in a provincial French city. Their efforts to socialize with women end in horrors of embarrassment and indignity. At a party, one of them works so hard to drink his way into sociability that he vomits behind a living-room couch. They are losers.
But at the end of this aimless and low-energy novel, the unnamed narrator makes a shocking observation that sets the tone for all of Houellebecq’s work, and possibly for the literature of our own century:
Sex, I told myself, has truly become a second system of social differentiation in our societies, quite independent of money and just as pitiless. And the effects of these two systems are exactly equivalent. … In a perfectly liberal economic system [capitalism], some people amass considerable fortunes; others rot in joblessness and poverty. In a perfectly liberal sexual system, some people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and loneliness. Economic liberalism means the battlefront is widening—widening to all ages of life and all classes of society. In the same way, sexual liberalism means the battlefront is widening—widening to all ages of life and all classes of society.
The title Extension du domaine de lutte is supposed to compare our society to something that inspires horror—a collapsing line of defense, or the sack of a port city. You will not find that resonance in the English-language title, however, since its translators chose, idiotically, to call the book Whatever. The mediocre and inaccurate English translations of Houellebecq’s first two novels go a long way to explain why he has caught on so much less well among English-language readers than elsewhere in the West.
The translators lacked the ideological imagination to see Houellebecq’s metaphorical comparison of capitalism and sexuality as anything other than an empty provocation, so they suppressed it. They were not alone. In France at the time, capitalism was in disrepute but the unregulated sexuality preached by the Generation of 1968 was still venerated as a sort of glorious refounding. There was an assumption that only right-wingers cared about money and only left-wing people appreciated sex. That economic and sexual exploitation might have a common logic was, until Houellebecq, a view confined to a few irritable priests and Marxists. Nor had anyone ever seen quite so clearly that the “liberations” of the 1960s could just as easily produce de-sexualization as hyper-sexualization. Houellebecq was impossible to place ideologically, and the confusion would deepen when he published his masterpiece Les Particules élémentaires (“The Elementary Particles”) four years later.
The Elementary Particles is a veiled autobiography, and a frontal attack on the culture of the 1960s. To understand the centrality of that decade to Houellebecq’s worldview, it helps to know something about his childhood, which resembles that of no public figure so much as that of Barack Obama. He was born on Reunion Island, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, in 1956. His mother was a progressive doctor afflicted with wanderlust. Much like Obama’s mother, who wrote ethnological studies of the smithies of Indonesia for the Ford Foundation, Mrs. Houellebecq shipped her son back home to be raised by more traditional grandparents, while she went off to save the (Third) World. Houellebecq in traditionalist France, like Obama in hokey Hawaii, seems to have held out hope that the absent progressive parent was doing something of relevance to him, that his archaic upbringing was somehow linked to his mother’s modernizing adventure, even if the two seemed to be in contradiction. Each boy wanted to believe that no one was “relegating” or “abandoning” him to anything. The hidden system behind their upbringing would reveal its wholeness in the end, in a union of the nomadic and the sedentary. When that didn’t happen, each of the men turned against one half of his childhood, Obama against the traditional/provincial side, Houellebecq against the progressive/cosmopolitan side—though each remained fluent and comfortable enough in the other idiom to consort with, and “pass” among, those who still believed in it.
The Elementary Particles is the story of two lonely half-brothers, the molecular biologist Michel Djerzinski and the middle-class drifter Bruno Clément, whose shared mother chose raising her consciousness over raising her kids. She joins communes, free-love colonies, and drug circles in far-off lands. The two brothers emerge damaged from parental neglect, each in his own way. Bruno is what used to be called in the 20th century a “sex maniac,” reducing every human relationship to the same urge and seeking out sex clubs, orgies, and various hedonistic communities in the vain hope of slaking his urges. Michel is a genetic researcher who hopes to replace sex with cloning or some more rational option. Houellebecq implies that these are two sides of the same coin.
The novel is not misogynistic, as critics almost uniformly allege, but its characters are resentful of feminism and the value system that arose out of it. “The bitches never stopped talking about doing the dishes and sharing the housework; they were literally obsessed with dirty dishes,” Bruno’s girlfriend Christiane complains. “In a few years, they managed to turn their boyfriends into impotent, sniveling wimps. At that point—well, what else would you expect? They started to miss having a man around. They wound up dumping their boyfriends to jump in bed with the first macho idiot who came along.”
The 1960s are almost like a malevolent character in The Elementary Particles. “The serial killers of the nineties,” Bruno opines as he researches the circles in which his mother traveled, “were the offspring of the hippies of the sixties.” Houellebecq’s point is that a change in values in the course of the 1960s removed the social and institutional support that individuals needed to sustain even a pretense of decency. His fictional world is emotionally excruciating. When Christiane suffers a spinal collapse and is confined permanently to a wheelchair, Bruno kisses her on the cheek and says tenderly, “Now you can move in with me.” But when she replies “Are you sure?,” his magnanimity breaks down. He looks away and cannot meet her gaze.
To the question of what it was about the 1960s that made them so destructive, most of Houellebecq’s early books would have given a technological answer, not an ideological one. Skepticism about the ability of science to master society’s challenges pervades his work. “One can say the West loved literature and the arts,” says a colleague of Michel Djerzinski, “but probably nothing counted more in its history than the need for rational certainty. To this need, the West sacrificed everything: its religion, its happiness, its hopes, and, when all is said and done, its existence.”
Among the previous generation of American novelists, the sensibility closest to Houellebecq’s is Saul Bellow’s—passionately engaged but authoritative and judgmental, an essayist’s sensibility as much as a novelist’s. If his characters frequently hold crackpot opinions, that never make his novels feel like crackpot projects. Houellebecq, educated at the elite National Agronomic Institute, has a mastery of, and a curiosity about, the facts of science. He delights in them. There is a fussy statisticality about his writing: “The year 1970 saw a rapid growth in erotic consumption, despite the efforts of a still-vigilant sexual repression…. Naked breasts spread rapidly on the beaches of Southern France. In the space of a few months, the number of sex shops in Paris rose from 3 to 45.”
This is the texture of all Houellebecq’s books. They ventriloquize or parody other genres—journalism (as in this quote), science writing, encyclopedias, travel guides, marketing pitches, and history. (Houellebecq’s conceit is that The Elementary Particles is a book written in 2079 but set in the 1990s.) In an age of political correctness, this distancing in time and tone allowed Houellebecq to restore to the French novel its didactic or wisdom-imparting function. He (or his narrator) could say such things as: “That’s one of the worst things about extreme beauty in young women: Only an experienced pickup artist, cynical and without scruples, thinks himself up to the task; so it is in general the rottenest men who win the treasure of their virginity, and this marks for such girls the first stage of a permanent debasement.”
This is the tone of the hardboiled French fiction associated with the sensualist aristocrat Henry de Montherlant and the detective writer Georges Simenon. Until Houellebecq came along, it had been decades since anyone used it.
For a long time, whether he was writing about science, as he did in Elementary Particles and The Possibility of an Island (2004), or tourism, as he did in Platform (2001), or art and the art market, as he did in The Map and the Territory (2010), Houellebecq made no effort to fit his political opinions into any prevailing categories. But critics have been nearly unanimous in detecting something suspect. It has always been clear that Houellebecq is troubled by the not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper surrender of France and the rest of Europe to self-confident immigrants, including Muslims. Soumission (“Submission”) was the first sign that he was moving in a direction that could unambiguously be called right-wing.
Set in the near future, it describes the machinations that lead to the election of the Islamist Mohammed Ben Abbes as the first Islamist president of France. It was published, in a way that sealed Houellebecq’s reputation for prophecy, on January 7 2015, the very day Islamist terrorists broke into the French satirical magazine Charlie Hébdo, massacred most of its staff, and took hostage the shoppers in a kosher supermarket near place de la Nation—four of whom would be executed over the following days. Submission has proved the most popular of his books in the United States.
Houellebecq saw, even well before most political commentators registered the rise of “populism,” that non-European immigration was driving native voters towards a politics of European identity. “Sooner or later, civil war between Muslims and the rest of the population is inevitable,” explains one French extremist in Submission, before going on to describe some of his comrades-in arms. “They draw the conclusion that the sooner this war begins, the better chance they’ll have of winning it.” Houellebecq’s narrator is a university scholar of 19th-century literary decadence fascinated by both sides of this confrontational politics. Europeans, he believes, are losing their only culture and their only home. As he explains to his Jewish girlfriend, who departs for Israel as the Islamist takeover begins, “There is no Israel for me.”
Because it is the most explicitly political of Houellebecq’s books, Submission is of much narrower range than his others, but it has two strikingly sophisticated elements. First is the sure-handed way Houellebecq describes the slowly forming consensus among France’s journalistic and political elite that they have more to fear from the National Front (the right-wing nationalist movement dominated by the Le Pen family) than from Ben Abbes. So in the name of “republican values,” they rally behind a party that wants to turn France into a sharia state. Second is Houellebecq’s sense that the only two really independent participants in this argument, the seemingly adversarial “identitarians” and the Islamists, are actually converging on a consensus, which happens also to be a truth: that “liberal individualism” has failed or, to be more precise, has reached the end of its historical logic.
By liberal individualism, Houellebecq means the principle of breaking down custom and tradition in order to render society more rational. As one liberal convert to Islam puts it in Submission, “Liberal individualism triumphed when it was content to dissolve such intermediate structures as countries, corporations, and castes, but now that it has reached the ultimate structure, the family—and thus the demography—it has signed its own death warrant. Logically, the time of Islam has arrived.”
Or at least the time of bigger things. Houellebecq’s latest, Serotonin, takes an explicitly religious turn. This is not exactly a surprise. Houellebecq has made sidelong references to religion in many of his earlier books. In The Elementary Particles, Bruno attempts to become a Catholic, spending half his time reading Charles Péguy and writing tracts in defense of Pope John Paul II, and the other half cruising Minitel (France’s proto-Internet) for pornography. The Map and the Territory contains, by way of an obituary for Houellebecq, who appears as a doomed character in his own novel, a strange note: “It was discovered—and this was a surprise for everybody—that the author of The Elementary Particles, who had taken a lifelong stance as an intransigent atheist, had had himself discreetly baptized in a church at Courtenay six months before.” And in Submission, a newly installed (and largely sympathetic) Islamist university rector talks reasonably to François (himself a Catholic dabbler) about God. “When you get down to it,” the rector says, “isn’t there something a bit ridiculous about this miserable little creature, living on an anonymous planet in the backwaters of a run-of-the-mill galaxy, standing on his hind legs to proclaim: ‘God doesn’t exist!’?”
As Serotonin begins, the agronomist Florent-Claude has left his faithless (to put it mildly) girlfriend and moved into a chain hotel in a drab neighborhood on the Parisian periphery. He spends his days watching cooking shows, leaving the room only for a meal once a day when it is being cleaned. He takes a pill called Captorix that keeps his depression at bay but makes him impotent—a metonym for the whole of Western society, as Houellebecq would probably see it. Serotonin is Houellebecq’s sloppiest novel in years. He drifts into paragraph-long, under-punctuated sentences that leave no literary impression beyond haste of composition. Its sexuality is not just crude but perverse, even (when it comes to one inspiration for winning back an old lover) homicidal.
Economic and sexual liberalism continue to be Houellebecq’s obsessions. Florent-Claude has until recently been a well-remunerated soldier on behalf of the former. He worked for Monsanto, a corporation that in Europe has a nearly Satanic reputation. Then he marketed to international buyers some of the lesser-known cheeses of Normandy—i.e., not just camembert but also livarot and Pont-l’Évêque. But the admission of Eastern European countries to the European Union in 2002, the suppression of the EU’s dairy quotas in 2015, and downward pressure on farm prices brought about by genetically modified organisms have put huge pressure on farmers. What Florent-Claude has really been doing is helping people who know about business to wipe out people who know about agriculture, and to wipe out rural cultures and landscapes along with them. Not to give away too much of the plot, this is something that becomes clear to Florent-Claude when he visits his best friend from agronomy school, now an independent farmer, and finds him cleaning an assault rifle.
Houellebecq’s characters are, as noted above, both solitary and common. Florent-Claude spends a lot of hours on one of the more solitary/common modern pastimes: rehashing his erotic past as he hunts down old lovers on the Internet. There was Kate, the romantic Scandinavian. There was Claire, the state-subsidized countercultural performance artist whom he dated during his time at Monsanto, who briefly gained fame for a show in which she masturbated while someone read texts by Georges Bataille. But above all there is Camille, a beautiful and adoring woman he met when she arrived as a teenage intern at his office in Normandy. They wound up living apart while she gained professional credentials. It might seem he could have asked her to stay with him, proposed marriage to her.
But I didn’t, and I certainly couldn’t have. I hadn’t been formatted for such a proposal, that wasn’t part of my software, I was a modern man, and for me as for all my contemporaries, a woman’s professional career had to be respected above everything else. It was the ultimate criterion, the triumph over barbarism, the exit from the Middle Ages.
Since Christiane in Elementary Particles, there has been a woman like Camille in each of Houellebecq’s novels, one who—at any other time than now and in any other culture than that of the decadent West—would have been a wife, a mother, a partner in building something larger. But Florent-Claude, like other Houellebecq protagonists, rejects Camille—actually, he repels her through a series of highly unnatural and learned “defenses,” most of which involve his own utterly pointless quest for sexual novelty. He is free to love whom he wants, but he can find no particular reason to settle into a productive pattern of love with anybody.
As Houellebecq sees it, liberalism’s various emancipatory projects require dismantling hierarchies, institutions and cultures. He is right about this. That is why his novels are so intelligent, vivid, and true. The problem is that these same hierarchies, institutions, and culture are what novels have always been about. A novelist who sincerely believes they have been destroyed finds himself in want of raw material. Novels require rich, ramifying networks of deeply human connection. The culture does not nurture these the way it did in an age of large and loyal families, intertangled commercial enterprises and long-settled communities. Houellebecq has faced this predicament with artistic integrity, refusing to fantasize that individuals in our time can somehow be re-inserted into such “novelistic” webs of meaning. Hence the paradox of Houellebecq. Better than any other author he describes certain human predicaments of the global age—but he has not managed to capture a wide audience in the global language. He is the most serious and important novelist in Europe—but he is writing at a time when New World critics and readers have decided to do without the kind of wisdom European novels traditionally impart.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.