“It isn’t the future but the past that kills you, that comes back to torment and undermine you.”
So goes one of the many melancholic reflections of Florent-Claude Labrouste in Michel Houellebecq’s 2019 novel “Serotonin.”
Labrouste is definitely haunted by his past. He is a middle aged, depressed agricultural scientist living in Paris with his wife half his age, Yuzu, who is promiscuous and shows little interest in him. After he hears that it is legal in France for people to choose to disappear, Labrouste decides to quit his job and leave his wife without telling her why and moves to another part of Paris. He then tries to reconnect with old lovers either to no avail or to discover how much they have turned out just like himself, sad and lonely. In the meantime, Labrouste sees a doctor who prescribes him a new antidepressant that numbs all his desire.
Later on, he lives in the Normandy countryside with an old friend named Aymeric, an aristocrat who is desperately trying to keep his dairy farm afloat in the face of increasing global competition. Against Labrouste’s advice, Aymeric takes up arms with his fellow farmers and blockades a road in a dramatic standoff with the French government. After this confrontation, Labrouste decides to leave the farm and move back to Paris.
Houellebecq paints a highly atomized society with a big dose of dark humor and frank descriptions of sex in “Serotonin.” Some people in these days of quarantine and social unrest will surely relate to this work. Every character in the book feels cut off from one another, yet they still desperately search for meaning. For Aymeric, it’s readying his guns against the government. For Labrouste, it’s reconnecting with a past that he can no longer relive. Both attempts are futile, but the meaning is in the struggle.
Regardless, readers may want a boost of serotonin when they’re finished.