Theodore Dalrymple reviews Sérotonine, Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel:

Not reading many contemporary French novels, I am not entitled to say that Michel Houellebecq is the most interesting French novelist writing today, but he is certainly very brilliant… [he identifies] the vacuity of modern life in the West, its lack of transcendence, lived as it is increasingly without religious or political belief, without a worthwhile creative culture, often without deep personal attachments, and without even a struggle for survival. …

Houellebecq’s underlying nihilism implies that it is not there to be found. The result of this lack of transcendent purpose is self-destruction not merely on a personal, but on a population, scale. Technical sophistication has been accompanied, or so it often seems, by mass incompetence in the art of living. Houellebecq is the prophet, the chronicler, of this incompetence. 

Even the ironic title of his latest novel, Sérotonine, is testimony to the brilliance of his diagnostic powers and his capacity to capture in a single word the civilizational malaise which is his unique subject. Serotonin, as by now every self-obsessed member of the middle classes must know, is a chemical in the brain that acts as a neurotransmitter to which is ascribed powers formerly ascribed to the Holy Ghost. All forms of undesired conduct or feeling are caused a deficit or surplus or malalignment of this chemical, so that in essence all human problems become ones of neurochemistry.  

On this view, unhappiness is a technical problem for the doctor to solve rather than a cause for reflection and perhaps even for adjustment to the way one lives. I don’t know whether in France the word malheureux has been almost completely replaced by the word déprimée, but in English unhappy has almost been replaced by depressed. In my last years of medical practice, I must have encountered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of depressed people, or those who called themselves such, but the only unhappy person I met was a prisoner who wanted to be moved to another prison, no doubt for reasons of safety.

Houellebecq’s one-word title captures this phenomenon (a semantic shift as a handmaiden to medicalisation) with a concision rarely equalled. And indeed, he has remarkably sensitive antennae to the zeitgeist in general, though it must be admitted that he is most sensitive to those aspects of it that are absurd, unpleasant, or dispiriting rather than to any that are positive.

Houellebecq satirises what might be called the neurochemical view of life which is little better than superstition or urban myth.

“His work, not least Sérotonine, is filled with disgust, as was [Jonathan] Swift’s: but it is the kind of disgust that can only emerge from deep disappointment, and one is not disappointed by what one does not care about. There is gallows humour on every page: the personage hanged being Western civilisation.”