Prophet of depressing times: Michel Houellebecq releases ′yellow vest′ novel | Books | DW | 08.01.2019
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Prophet of depressing times: Michel Houellebecq releases 'yellow vest' novel

After hailing Trump as "one of the best American presidents" ever, France's controversial author is back with a new novel, Serotonin, which combines pornography and prescient depictions of the "yellow vest" protests.

The narrator and main protagonist of Michel Houellebecq's latest novel, Serotonin, describes himself as a middle-aged Western man without friends or relatives, without personal projects or interests. While he does not have any financial problems, he's also deeply disappointed by his professional life.

Florent-Claude Labrouste, 46 years old, is an agricultural engineer and employee of the Ministry of Agriculture who decides to change his life radically. Cynical and hardened, yet with dashes of romanticism, he's a typical Houellebecqian antihero.

The French author has touched upon various social issues in his novels, whether scientific "progress" in genetic engineering (The Elementary Particles, 2000) or mass sex tourism as a result of globalization (Platform, 2002). Most famously, his 2015 novel, Submission, which deals with Islamism and terror, was published right on the day of the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, adding a "prophetic" value to the controversial novelist's work.

Library display of Houellebecq novel Soumission (Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images)

The publication date of Submission (Soumission in French) was oddly timed

Foreseeing the Yellow Vest protests

Serotonin, Houellebecq's seventh novel, now released in French and German (the English version is due in September)can also be described as prophetic, since it depicts among other things the uprising of underprivileged groups in France, reflecting the "yellow vest" movement protesting against President Macron's reforms. In Serotonin, desperate dairy farmers are the ones violently rebelling against the system.

A few scenes from Serotonin accurately describe what is currently happening in France. But the protests in the novel go beyond highway blockades and verbal attacks against the political establishment; deaths ensue. Will the warnings in Houellebecq's novel once again find their echo in real life?

Disappointed by life

However, Serotonin shouldn't be seen as a political treatise; it's rather a literary depiction of an unfortunate man facing a mid-life crisis, as is often the case in Houellebecq's novels.

The protagonist is not only disappointed by his professional life but also by his failed relationships. Labrouste ghosts his Japanese girlfriend Yuzu and moves into a hotel in the center of Paris without leaving a message, breaking off with different aspects of his former life.

Yet Labrouste's real problem is that he's suffering from depression. He starts taking the antidepressant Captorix, which increases serotonin levels but also affects his libido. 

But that doesn't mean Houellebecq has for once created a protagonist who no longer thinks about sex. Labrouste is rather sex-obsessed, and stories about former lovers, encounters with prostitutes or descriptions of sexual fantasies line up in the novel. Serotonin includes detailed pornographic scenes that cement Houellebecq's reputation as a literary descendant of the Marquis de Sade.

Politics and pornography, individual suffering and world perspectives: Houellebecq's favorite themes are there, once again wrapped in gloomy nihilism and misanthropy. It's not for everyone, but his fans will not be disappointed.

Yellow vest protests in Paris (Reuters/G. Fuentes)

Times of unrest: another topic of Houellebecq's novel

Critic of globalization

Along with his credible depiction of psychologically dark characters, the most interesting aspect of the French novelist's latest work is his sharp criticism of the consequences of globalization.

To get away from his past life, Labrouste visits Aymeric, his only friend from his former days as a student of agricultural economics. Aymeric runs a dairy farm and his business is suffering from falling prices caused by international trade policies and EU regulations.

Houellebecq thereby captures the zeitgeist expressed by the "yellow vests" protests.

Sharing Trump's nationalist views

Shortly before the publication of his novel, the author contributed an essay to Harper's magazine in which he cynically claimed, "President Trump seems to me to be one of the best American presidents I've ever seen."

When you read Serotonin, it's easier to understand why. Trump's protectionist economic policy is seen as a way out of the crisis of globalization, which destroys local and traditional farming. The author's longing for the "good old days" seems to be shining through in his last novel: Old France is dead — and the future does not seem very hopeful.

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