Michel Houellebecq’s Serotonin is an update on Joris-Karl Huysmans’ A Rebours. The premise is the same—wealthy Parisian severs himself from a declining civilization—even if the mechanism of their flight necessarily differs. The hermetic isolation that A Rebours’ Des Esseintes achieves wouldn’t work here, but Serotonin’s Florent-Claude Labrouste manages the same effect by quitting his job, setting up a new bank account, and ghosting his girlfriend. The ending of Huysmans’ novel, however, has somehow become too optimistic for Houellebecq. Reviewing A Rebours, Barbey d’Aurevilly famously remarked that having written this book, the only options left for Huysmans were the pistol or the cross. Houellebecq suggests that the intervening hundred and forty years have made another response more plausible.
The most obvious inroad for theological comment on Serotonin is its overtly religious conclusion, which describes the cross as Jesus’ last-ditch effort to warn human beings against letting our hearts become hard. Most of the novel follows the hardening of Florent-Claude’s heart, in the sense that he insulates himself from encounters that could change him. In A Rebours, Des Esseintes decamps from Paris and designs a mansion that will make further interaction with the human race unnecessary. Florent-Claude uses a drug, Captorix, which makes him capable of routine daily behavior but otherwise mutes his emotional responses. He doesn’t need to literally remove himself from society; society happens around him, without him becoming entangled. It makes it easy for him to live at a distance, and he often describes events that way—through the remove of memory, or viewed through a rifle’s sight. He watches from a hilltop as his last friend publicly kills himself, and then spends the following chapters processing this death through its media coverage. His final act in the novel is printing out a selection of his digital photos and gluing them to the wall of the apartment where he’ll die, a facsimile of a Facebook album. The album depicts the ossification of his heart, now impenetrable to any further “surge of love” from God; his life as a completed story, finished and irrevocable.
This obvious tack from the novel’s peroration, however, needs to be supplemented by Florent-Claude’s complaint in the middle—that God is a mediocrity, and that all creation “bears the stamp of approximation and failure.” The specific failure for which he there indicts God is his breakup with Camille. But this relationship and its end don’t occur in a vacuum. Camille first turns to Florent-Claude after witnessing the horror of a French poultry farm that supplies eggs to Canada and Saudi Arabia. They break up because Florent-Claude cheats on her with a woman from the British delegation he meets on EU business in Brussels. This is the lousy scriptwriting that he attributes to God: clichés thickly plastered over with exotic detail. Yet “God” here is simply the globalized market: every scenario in the novel that Florent-Claude endures is latticed into the framework of international trade and its consequences. This Absolute accumulated from regulatory commissions, partnership agreements, global competition, etc., links all persons and nations together through transactions and redistributions that are far from optimal. It cobbles together something for people to live that resembles life, but stripped of cultural or historical roots. Like a bad script, things happen in a way that passes for meaningful but without depth or resonance.
Nevertheless, Serotonin suggests a “hope beyond all hope” that can deliver us, which contrasts with the failed salvations described in Houellebecq’s previous novel. In Submission, Houellebecq presented a solution entwined with nativist reaction: Robert Rediger’s idea of submission, unreserved acceptance of the world as God’s flawless “masterpiece.” This pseudo-Islam was an attempt to absolve oneself of global politics, asserting that creation will tend to itself while the nationalists attend to their nation. Submission also pronounces on Huysmans: his retreat into the cross is recognized as a compensation for the inability of fin de siècle Paris, enfeebled by mass movements and bourgeois values, to deliver him traditional domestic contentment. Serotonin knows that escaping the global market is idle fantasy; neither submission nor ascesis can protect us from the stressors of a civilization intent on ending. But despite God’s ineptitude, he really does care, and the misery of globalization also provides us the network within which “surges of love” become possible. Our hope rests in contemporary society’s readiness for its own defeat, civilization’s abnegation before fleshly warmth. Through the passion it facilitates, the global market dispenses happiness to those who, by fanning the sparks it lets fall to human coupling, pass its test.
Florent-Claude does not pass; Serotonin conveys its idea of salvation by charting its wreck. The novel ends with Florent-Claude fixed between two surfaces that display the choice offered by d’Aurevilly. On the wall, his life in the photographs, testifying that it remains stone-dead to grace. Adjacent to that, his death, deferred for now, presented by the window out of which he plans to drop when his bank account is empty. Florent-Claude confronts this choice, yet finds himself having already refused to make it. He’s squandered the mercy of God by letting the love that previously burst into his life extinguish, so there’s no petitioning for another chance. He recounts the end of his relationship with Kate; she gets on the train to Copenhagen, looks at him and tears fill her eyes, and he does nothing. “For that I deserve death.” Much later, he’s planned out how to die, but the thought still makes him uncomfortable. He doesn’t look out the window very much. There won’t be anything like the resolution or intention that would accompany a decision: one day he’ll just open the window and lean forward.
In A Rebours, Des Esseintes was finally forced back to Paris by his physician. Although his evil civilization will shortly swallow him again, he still has enough fury to appeal for mercy from a Christ in whom he does not believe. Florent-Claude acknowledges Christ as an unheeded dream, affirms God’s special and affectionate hand in our lives, and avails himself of the conveniences of his evil civilization while he waits for living to become unbearable.