What does Michel Houellebecq want?

Forfatter: Michel Houellebecq
Forlag: Cappelen Damm (Norge)
The controversial author Michel Houellebecq recently released his first book in four years. Will the book give the French farmers the help they need in the fight for their livelihood?


We are many who talked down the days of the publication of Michel Houellebecq's latest book, Serotonin (serotonin, 2019). Rumors had already spread that the author would once again hit the nerve of French society, as he did last time, when Submission (Submission, 2015) came out the same day that satirist Charlie Hebdo was attacked by Islamists. IN Submission Houellebecq describes a future scenario where a Muslim presidential candidate wins the election in 2022, and slowly but surely makes France a Muslim state.

This time, Houellebecq's book comes out as the Yellow West has managed, against everyone's predictions, to settle in the French political landscape by sending an electric shock right up to the presidential palace: President Emmanuel Macron now has numbers that he only thought his predecessor was in able to get. Anyway – Macron probably couldn't have dreamed of anything better. Because even though the Yellow West has smashed stores on the Champs-Élysées, they have also become the President's favorites. They are simply like himself: they come from nowhere, neither from the left nor the right, and are devoid of ideology – except for a very legitimate desire to have a better everyday life and a better life. And when the violence is fought authoritatively, in French, it opens up a room for dialogue – though also in French manners: first dialogue between the president and the mayors, then – in known "Obama style" – on public meetings, with questions well planted with the audience. It works. Thank God.

Michel Houellebecq in Paris. AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR.

anti Globalization

Florent-Claude Labrouste is a forty-six-year-old official in the French Ministry of Agriculture. There he is responsible for organizing France's contribution to the EU's negotiations on a new trade agreement with the Mercosur countries of Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. An agreement that could be the death knell for French agriculture.

Serotonin can become the best seller the French farmers need.

It can hardly be more timely and potentially explosive: just these days the negotiations for the Mercosur agreement are in the final phase. The slow revolution the Yellow West has started can badly need angry, French farmers with lousy earnings to accelerate pace and impact. For the anti-globalization movement, in which Houellebecq has a prominent voice, it is time to put in the shock. The question is whether the book can provoke an equally broad debate – and pour gasoline on the bonfires of the Yellow West. It is well possible. For many, the liberalization of agricultural trade will further weaken the living conditions of French farmers. If the EU lowers the tariff barrier for meat from the Mercosur countries it could mean the hook on the door for French farmers.

Florent-Claude's quirky way out is to disappear from the face of the earth, and then emerge as an apricot farmer in Argentina – knowing that he will enrich himself there by outperforming the apricot production of the French farmers. In our virtual community, he spends only a few hours clearing all digital tracks, but several days finding a hotel where he can smoke in the room. It's too bad.

From the first page we have an excellent Houellebecq. With his anti-hero and gloomy and cynical storytelling style, he will once again disprove all possible notions that increased trade can be an important driver of new economic growth in France. On the contrary: It increases the differences between rich and poor, kills the spark of life of the middle class and takes the livelihoods of people in the countryside. Serotonin may very well be the best seller the French farmers need to be seen, heard and understood. The fact that the Mercosur agreement will also remove about thirty percent of the tariffs on French cheeses, wine, cars and champagne – and thus may open up new markets for French niche products – is not in Florent-Claude's consciousness. It would ruin the whole plot.

The destructiveness of the individual

For those of us who are Francophile, Europhile and weak for very entertaining French politics, is Serotonin difficult to put away before you finish. For every page I read, I feel that he is flirting with me all over, it is tingling in my head, heart, stomach – and not least between my legs. The last I shall return to. But first: It is the storytelling that makes Houellebecq's books so intensely engrossing. He gives us stories that are never boring, that always surprise, shock and provoke. At the same time, he portrays society from one side the main actors are hardly able to convey themselves. He is the French elite ultimate.

It is the storytelling that makes his books so engrossing.

From the first fascinating scene at the gas station, where he helps two young ladies fill the tire, he manages to arouse our curiosity about where the book will take us. His lustful look at the young girls' most voluptuous body parts makes his mind spin and gives us only a taste of upcoming erotic descriptions, ranging from the most sensual to the most vulgar. Because before Florent-Claude leaves the country, he takes us on a sort of settlement round with his former mistresses. Here he gives their preferences, which can make even Cupido's readers blush. Because it takes something extra to awaken his erotic senses and pump the serotonin into the blood: Where does the man's erect penis really get the most pleasure? In the vagina, in the anus or in the mouth? And who doesn't want to see their life partner as a capable, and expensive, escort girl? Having traditional sex after reading Serotonin must be like watching Claude Lelouch's movie A man and a woman (1966) for the third time.

But then comes the point where some readers will fall off – because they think the description of a German, unemployed scientist's pedophile activities is simply inedible, as is his Japanese girlfriend's sex with dogs. Is this where Houellebecq achieves what he wants? To show a society so to the degree meaningless and boundless that nothing shocks anyone? Because when he makes the readers who actually have some boundaries fall away, he can cultivate the individual's lonely, gloomy and destructive destiny. Maybe that's where he wants us all.

Also read: Franco-German connection: Onfray, Houllebecq and Schopenhauer of Tjønneland.

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