Dying of a broken heart

Reading Michel Houellebecq’s ‘Serotonin’ (2019) in eternal lockdown

3 A.M. is an odd thing. You’re sitting on the toilet simultaneously wired and tired, thinking about a factoid you saw that claimed that men’s sperm counts will decline so low as to reach zero by 2045, which is really not that far away. And you’re thinking that everything you do in life is just cope — from the work you do, to your writing, to the things you post on Instagram, to the movies you watch and books you read. Everything is just a method of distracting from the weight of existence. A few weeks ago you re-read Michel Houllebecq’s novel Serotonin. And at 3 A.M. on the toilet thinking about global declining sperm counts, you’re thinking that you might understand then how someone could literally die of sorrow.  

As of the time of writing this, I’m experiencing my fifth (?) week of a full homebound isolation, because the country has gone into another full-scale lockdown again. Lately, memories have been flooding back to me in a terrible wave. At one point in Serotonin, the narrator Florent-Claude is reminded of his ex-lover and the memory nearly knocks him out. This is how memories have been coming over me too, bowdlerising me at vulnerable times in the night, or when I’m trying to focus on a paragraph in a book. They come in a complete package with their attendant emotions — mostly shame or sadness — and they paralyse me, they force me back into time with them. Maybe I’m not old enough yet to have the accumulation of memory as hopeless as the ones that completely wind Florent-Claude, but if it’s already this difficult now, I tremble at what’s in store for when I’m older. 

I’ve been remembering everything. Staying home for so long, not receiving the sun, you start to feel dry and ashy all over. The other night I caught myself picking at dry skin on my lips, a habit I abandoned when I was in primary school, and the pain when I pulled off a ribbon of skin transported me back to memories of the girl I used to be. All the years are so awkward and painful, and — sorry to be melodramatic — existence really is full of pain, the most abject pain. Work, exercise, entertainment, culture, society, all of these offer much needed fictions to silence the horror of consciousness. Otherwise, as I’m realising now during lockdown, the weight of it all becomes too much to bear. As to how much of these distractions actually feed into the widening abyss, I don’t know. As to whether we were better off before, I don’t know. All I know is that memory in combination with stagnancy is a real killer.

By the end of Serotonin, its central middle-aged narrator Florent-Claude has resigned himself to a desperate solitary life in a high-rise apartment on the outskirts of Paris. The city of lights and romance is dead to him. He has no friends, lovers, or family, but he has a generous inheritance on which he lives off the rest of his days. He doesn’t leave the house, he nourishes himself “with the new food delivery service that Amazon had just launched” and is delighted to discover that the apartment comes equipped with a garbage chute, so that he really never has to leave the house. He spends his days watching television, hardly leaving the bed let alone the house, until he gives up on even television and feels himself starting to rot to death. It was all a mere matter of time. He has a few capsules left of Captorix, a fictional SSRI that had been prescribed to him months earlier, which had done a good enough job in numbing him and allowing him to achieve little feats like maintaining personal hygiene, but which has also made him impotent and shot his cortisol levels through the roof.

But, hang on. Record scratch, freeze frame. How did he end up like this? What was the great tragedy that brought him so low? 

It’s too bad this isn’t a late-90s/early-00s comedy, because if it were, Florent-Claude might have an American accent, look something like Chandler from Friends, emit a few drunken burps, and then there would be a satisfactory narrative for it all – because surely such an exaggerated ending can’t have come out of nowhere, right? Well, that’s the difference between Europe and America maybe; Americans have so much optimism, even when they think they don’t. The great tragedy of Florent-Claude’s life is just that he is alive. 

Well, there was some action in the book. Michel Houellebecq somehow has this talent of writing the most outlandish, extravagant, and extreme things in the most banal manner.  The thing one remembers most from Serotonin isn’t the revolutionary facedown and shootout in the middle, nor even the attempted murder of a child; the thing that leaves the greatest impression is Florent-Claude’s utter hopelessness and inability to control his life. Similarly, in Submission, Houellebecq’s previous novel, the thing one remembers is not so much the speculative fiction of France becoming an Islamic state, even though that is the entire point of the novel. In fact, it hardly takes place at all. Most of the time people are doing nothing except thinking about their sad POS lives. 

I guess it’s time now for a proper introduction. Serotonin is the eighth and latest novel by French author Michael Houellebecq. On the global stage, he’s somewhat of a controversial figure, but the French seem to love their own, and he’s been dubbed France’s greatest living writer. His novels contain what some might consider sexist and racist screeds, but always towards the purpose of illuminating a difficult truth about 21st-century Western society. In Serotonin, for example, there is a brief scene at the beginning in which Florent-Claude meets two young women on a road trip in Spain, a scene that could, with some mental gymnastics, be construed as “sexist” given the lascivious ways he describes their youth and the inspiration they provide for his masturbatory fantasies later, but the masturbatory fantasies are really just redemption fantasies. There are later a few passages reflecting his musings on the conflict between the sexes, which, again, you could call “sexist” but which I think he provides sufficient reason for, and which are at times even inspiring. 

Houellebecq’s controversial novels have covered hot (read: sensitive) topics like prostitution, third world sex tourism, Islamic fundamentalism, and such like. These controversial topics are entry points into the real questions, about globalism, late-stage capitalism, the war of the sexes, the dissolution of then traditional family, the scientific revolution, all of which underlie the major conflicts of our current age. Have we really learned to live with women entering the workforce? Has progress so rapid, the pace of which has never been matched in the entirety of human history, actually set back the overall happiness of the species? The real heated topics that are heated because of the resounding silence over them in the liberal agenda — because we’d rather talk about, uh, body positivity or workplace micro-aggressions or whatever — are the transactional and convoluted nature of heterosexual sex in the modern age, and the replacement of older forms of moral guidance such as religion and the family by impersonal market dictates and professional psychologising. And also the dissolution of clear boundaries between nation-states under globalism. 

Serotonin is the third book of his that I’ve read, the other two are The Elementary Particles/Atomised (which the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani called “a deeply repugnant read”) and Submission. Personally, I don’t find anything about these books repugnant because nothing repugnant actually happens; they mostly consist of the melancholic ravings of sad, sexless, middle-aged men. And yet, Houellebecq remains controversial enough to the people who matter that he’s stacked up a nice little collection of lawsuits against his books (all of which have led nowhere, btw), along with a reputation for being an enfant terrible. The publication of his “controversial” novels always seems to precede some sort of disaster that is depicted in his books: the 2002 terrorist bombing in Bali (after Platform), the Charlie Hebdo attacks (Submission, the aforementioned book about an Islamic transformation of France, was coincidentally published the same day), and the 2019 Yellow Vests movement in France (after Serotonin). Reading his Wikipedia page and considering the uncanny resonance his books end up having to real life, you might think he was some major terrorist leader announcing his plans in plain sight, or some bizarro prophet. 

I first read Serotonin when it came out in 2019 and thought that it was just alright. But reading it in 2021, after nearly two years of living with the legally-enforced nationwide lockdowns, curfews, and declarations of emergency brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, the force of its despair really takes your breath away. The book follows a first-person narrator, rather sissy-ly named Florent-Claude, who opens up the book by whining about how he doesn’t understand why his parents gave him such a foppish, florid name, then immediately conceding that he had never taken any measures to change his name, not even by taking on a nickname. His name is just the first of many things about his life that he’s failed to assert any control over, not because he’s lost control but rather because he’s never made much of an effort in the first place. Anyway, the novel then continues in such a fashion as Florent-Claude, 46 in the novel, deeply depressed, an executive lackey in the Department of Agriculture, not so much trapped as bitterly resigned to a loveless, sexless relationship with his Japanese art-world adjacent socialite girlfriend who’s half his age and openly cheating on him, as Florent-Claude finally makes the first conscious decision of his life by choosing to disappear off the face of the Earth. 

The process of disappearance is terrifyingly easy. Within a day, he submits his resignation to his supervisor at the DoA (a governmental department only in name, since it had long submitted to the totalising forces of globalism and given up on protecting the rights of French farmers), ends the lease on his condominium, creates a new bank account, and, by clicking a few buttons online, effectively settles all his outstanding bills and obligations. He doesn’t even see his girlfriend before he leaves. Apparently, as he learns from a documentary titled Voluntarily Missing, it is not a crime to abandon one’s family in France, and in 2013 the French had stopped conducting missing-person searches on behalf of families. In France, it is perfectly legal and permissible to drop all responsibilities and leave to start over again as someone else somewhere else. 

It was startling that, in a country where individual liberties had tended to shrink, legislation was preserving this one, which was fundamental — in my eyes even more fundamental, and philosophically more troubling, than suicide.

Serotonin, Michel Houellebecq

Though the technical aspects of his life are easily settled, Florent-Claude finds that renouncing all other responsibility over his life is not as easy as it first seemed. After his “voluntary disappearance”, he loses himself within a labyrinth of memory. He whiles away his time watching television in hotel rooms, smoking, and sometimes going out for a walk to the nearby Carrefour. (Hey, at least he got to go out for walks.) The Captorix he had been prescribed by a quack doctor helps greatly with damming up his despair, allowing him to execute a few simple daily tasks. For most of the book, this pill saves him from sliding into the insectile existence he eventually succumbs to by the end. 

Like the Spanish college-aged nymphettes he meets at the beginning of the novel, Florent-Claude’s “psychologist” Dr Azote is another saving grace in un-PC disguise. By many modern standards, he would be considered a “quack”. On top of breezily signing a Captorix prescription before even assessing his patient, he also gives him the contacts of a few prostitutes: cutting past any bullshit about therapy or SSRI’s and prescribing what he intuits to be Florent-Claude’s problem. What our narrator is suffering from is a spiritual malaise to which there is no chemical solution. While Dr Azote may horrify today’s science-worshipping liberals, he performs a greater service as a doctor by not pathologising Florent-Claude or selling him on false promises. 

The journey through the labyrinth of memory becomes actualised when Florent-Claude gets overwhelmed with loneliness and starts dialling up people from his past. He first calls up an old girlfriend from his early 20s who, he discovers, has wound up in as dire straits as his — in fact, worse, because she’s morbidly alcoholic. Then, as Christmas and the New Year approach, Florent-Claude makes a visit to Aymeric, his old college mate from Agricultural college. 

Aymeric is the only one from their graduating class who actually pursued farming instead of a bureaucrat job with the government, or an exec job with a private corporation. (Florent-Claude, for his part, had gone to Monsanto after college.) When Florent-Claude travels to the Normandy countryside to spend Christmas with his old college buddy, he finds everything in an utter mess. Despite his aristocratic lineage and extensive lands, Aymeric is doing very badly indeed, as production at his farm is unable to compete against cheaper South American imports and the totalising force of agricultural monopolies like Monsanto. His inherited land is no longer valuable for farming, and he’s forced to develop kitschy AirBNB bungalows to be rented out to tourists. Because the French countryside is now the province of scenic tourism—a green getaway for the urban bourgeoisie when they tire of their concrete playground—and not agriculture. The great line of kings ends at Aymeric. 

(This castration of once-noble professions can be seen in other titles too, like those of scholars, artists, and even global leaders, many of whom are still imperial leaders. Back in the days, kings would hang people in public gallows, dismember them, and skewer their heads on sticks if they even so much as thought about betraying them. The other day though, Emmanuel Macron got slapped in the face and the guy who did it only got four months in prison. Think about it, all our leaders now are spineless nerds in suits, many of them not even as young as Macron is. The revolution doesn’t need guns or Molotov cocktails or Bolsheviks. These days, you can just slap people.) 

Is it possible to live a dignified life that’s also a solitary one? Yes, I think so, but it’s difficult. You don’t get a choice these days. Somehow, despite being more populated and better connected than ever, more people seem to be living alone than at any point in history. And not out of some ascetic spiritual mission or because they’re a modern-day Diogenes; no, this loneliness isn’t the kind that’ll make you stronger. 

Alone, with nobody to watch you, nobody to care for you, nobody to even check on you… the terrible part is how easy it is. In fact, it’s even rewarded, if French law is anything to go by. The worst part is that you’ve done it to yourself, for no reason, for no purpose; you just seem to wake up one day in the middle of your life and find yourself profoundly alone. By the age of 46, Florent-Claude has weathered so many disappointments and failures, most tragically of all in the arena of love. 

The incident with Aymeric is dramatic and tragic, but only because it is enacting on a political and national scale the spiritual erosion that is already happening on a personal scale. The most genuinely heartbreaking parts of the book are the ones where our narrator remembers Kate and Camille, the two great loves of his life, and how they came to a sudden inexplicable end. Of course, on the surface of it, their endings are very explicable — in both cases, FC cheated. Both times with some ethnic broad in what was clearly mutually narcissistic and pointless sex. But the gaping mystery that remains unsolved is what it is that makes people hijack their own happiness, and why they seem to do this over and over and over again. This reflects the farmers’ crisis on a personal level: Western man sacrifices what is simple, local, flavourful, and fulfilling — something that has proven to work for decades if not centuries — for something cheap and exotic. 

Why?

Just to experience it. Just ‘cause it’s there. Just ‘cause white girls and nationalism are so last season. There’s a parallel to be made here between FC’s heading straight into Monsanto after graduating and his failure to remain loyal to his girlfriends. We would like to think that we stand for certain principles, but the truth is that real life turns us all into repeated traitors. To the point where anyone who “believes” in anything at all — let alone enough to die for it, as Aymeric does — is considered a naive schmuck. It’s part of being human in the modern age. Just the act of getting by requires such a tedious amount of effort that leads us towards choices that provide short-term pleasure but leave us with a long-term emptiness. We inevitably succumb to that reality and as we age we know that we had not stood for anything, that we had remained loyal to no one. 

The relationship between Florent-Claude and Camille disintegrates when she has to return to university in Paris (they had met in a rather un-PC way, when Camille arrived at his company as an intern). Here, a heartbreaking passage (well everything is heartbreaking in this drippy and deeply painful book): 

I could have suggested that she give up her studies and become a housewife, my wife in fact, and in retrospect, when I think about it (and I think about it almost all the time), I think she would have said yes […] But I didn’t, and I probably wouldn’t have done; I hadn’t been formatted for such a proposition, it wasn’t part of my software; I was a modern man, and for me, like for all of my contemporaries, a woman’s professional career was something that had to be respected above all else — it was the absolute criterion, it meant overtaking barbarism and leaving the Middle Ages. At the same time, I wasn’t entirely a modern man because I had, even just for a few seconds, been able to imagine the imperative of her leaving it; but once again I didn’t do anything, didn’t say anything, and let events run their course, while I essentially placed no trust in this return to Paris: like all cities, Paris was made to generate loneliness, and we hadn’t had enough time together, in that house, a man and a woman alone and facing one another; for a few months we had been the rest of each other’s world, but would we be able to sustain such a thing? I don’t know; I’m old now and can’t really remember, but I think I was already afraid, and I’d understood, even then, that society was a machine for destroying love.  

What are we crying for — it’s always been like this, hasn’t it? The only constant in life is its cruelty. But it wasn’t always so easy to leave people, to betray each other. Now, if someone wants to just disappear off the face of the earth, we’ve somehow all agreed as a society that the right thing to do would be to just leave him be. The lonelier you are, the more painful the memories are when they come, and the more painful they are, the less inclined you feel to ever dabble in human relationships ever again. 

In this phase of Malaysia’s lockdown, the government has just announced a string of new areas to be placed under “enhanced” lockdown, which is a stricter form of lockdown reserved for cluster areas and where a resident can only leave the house to get essentials or to get vaccinated. Many of the areas under this “enhanced” lockdown are working class neighbourhoods or flats. At the same time, a “white flag” campaign has also taken off on social media which calls on desperate Malaysians not to suffer silently, and to place a white flag or cloth outside their house if things are getting bad, as a way of reaching out without having to say anything. Everyone is encouraged to check up on each other and to keep an eye out for any white flags flying in their neighbours’ windows. There is something about this that is deeply sad, despite the genuine and good intentions behind it. If we really cared for each other, maybe we shouldn’t have allowed it to get to this. In the past few years, online crowdfunding and charity have become widely mainstream, and there is something about this that is good and empowering, but something else that makes me think that the betrayal has already been completed, if this is what our social relations have become. Some part of me thinks we shouldn’t have allowed each other to be siloed so easily, that we embraced the initial lockdown and the urgent messaging surrounding Covid-19 a bit too readily. (I implicate myself in this.) That there was a line last year we shouldn’t have crossed, but which we did, without questioning it, and that has led us to where we are now. No matter the cause or rationale for it, people should not be so alone for so long. 

I don’t know the degree to which Florent-Claude is autobiographical (and because Houellebecq likes to write so many sad losers for his protagonists, I assume that all of them are, to an extent, autobiographical), but in his role as an author, Houellebecq is also Dr Azote. He intuitively senses the deep, inconsolable frissons between humans in the modern century, and he is reflecting (rather vulgarly sometimes, for effect) ourselves back to us so that we may see what we have become, and potentially understand ourselves better, if not save ourselves. Lorin Stein, in Salon, testifies on Houellebecq’s behalf with words as generous as many of us can only hope to one day hear spoken about ourselves by those whom we love (let alone those who barely know us), 

Houellebecq may despair of love in a free market, but he takes love more seriously, as an artistic problem and a fact about the world, than most polite novelists would dare to do; when he brings his sweeping indignation to bear on one memory, one moment when things seemed about to turn out all right for his characters, and didn’t, his compassion can blow you away. 

Lorin Stein in Salon

In the end, Florent-Claude literally dies of a broken heart: one of Captorix’s side effects becomes too alarming to ignore. His cortisol levels have shot through the roof, slowing down his metabolism and making him gain an unhealthy amount of weight. Slowly but surely, his life and body lose all their contours, and he becomes this sludge alone in his apartment, the last thing to push down the garbage chute. 

He came to his own isolation after decades of trial, failure, heartbreak, and bitter sadness. Sure, he never amounted to anything, but at least he had a few years of freedom to disappoint himself. (*Insert “Catskills” joke here from the opening of Annie Hall*) Under a pandemic lockdown, especially one as extensive as this, the isolation is embraced seemingly by everyone… By this point, in Malaysia, it’s only natural. It’s as if we never left, like we’d never known anything else. 

What I’m wondering is the following: how can we live a meaningful life under lockdown? How can we continue to be apart, ostensibly for each other’s own good, but still care for each other? Is love actually incompatible with the idea of individual freedom? What can I do with the memories? Where can they go? What is the connection between memories and the present; what are we supposed to do with them? How can I live through this and still have the strength to continue as normal? If lockdown is a dress rehearsal for what old age will be like (tired, lonely, confusing, with nothing truly to our name except our memories, and our failures), then how should we prepare ourselves? Is it possible to create a society where memories and failures don’t induce such a gut-wrenching desire to flee? How can we learn to embrace the pain and the suffering? How can we avoid people slinking off into the void, disappearing forever? Is it true that society destroys love?  

I have a lot of questions. 

As a narrative, nothing much happens in Serotonin. Some dramatic events happen, but the things that happen don’t seem to matter as much as the things that fail to happen, or the things that could have happened differently, as a result of Florent-Claude’s failure to take responsibility for his own life. This is why it has been the book I’m turning to for answers during this lockdown, because Serotonin is also about a man who spends most of his time not-existing within the four walls of his room.

The lockdown has given me an inordinate amount of time to think. Most of the time I’m finding ways to distract myself. The answers I sought from Serotonin turned into more questions, but the vision of a future that it presents is believable and vivid enough to be a sort of answer. The critics who ignore it, alleging “racism” or “sexism”, do so at their own risk. Just as how racial and sexual differences aren’t morally real (they’re only real as biological technicalities, like the fact that some people have more/less melanin than others), racism and sexism are also not real problems. They’re superficial problems that will sort themselves out with time. The problem of loneliness and the self-hating tendency to hijack one’s own happiness, however, feels very much more real to me. 

You plunge into the past, you begin to plunge into it and then it seems as if you’re being engulfed by it, and nothing can put a limit on that engulfment.

Serotonin, Michel Houellebecq

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