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The Living Dead

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A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on March 4, 2019. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

As I was preparing to participate in a roundtable discussion of Sérotonine (Serotonin), Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, I had to interrupt, temporarily, the reading of my current bedside book, Au bonheur des dames (The Ladies’ Paradise), by Émile Zola. Pure coincidence brought these works into my purview at the same time—at first glance, there’s no obvious connection between the two writers, separated as they are by a century and by very different sensibilities.

But while browsing through the two novels before the discussion, I was struck by an amazing similarity. Both Houellebecq, ostensibly a man of the right, and Zola, a man of the left, describe with great force the sufferings of ordinary people crushed by an economic system the destructive power of which no one can check. Furthermore, Houellebecq, in accomplishing this feat, demonstrates a journalistic talent of which I had previously been unaware, an eye for the details of daily life that the author of the Rougon-Macquart cycle and “J’Accuse…!” would have found most congenial.

I’m not saying that Houellebecq and Zola share the same spirit or the same politics. Nevertheless, Sérotonine has stirred up some extremely sharp commentary on the subject of the grassroots movement known as the gilets jaunes, the “yellow vests,” and one may wonder whether this inveterately satirical novelist is transforming himself: if not into a defender of the people at least into a critic of the haute bourgeoisie and the leisure class. In his latest novel, we find the author known for his absurdly pornographic scenes and cynical caricatures of mid-level managers and the corporate world siding with small farmers oppressed by globalization, free trade, and the European Union. While by no means a leftist, Houellebecq may be someone who’s in the process of evolving.

The narrator of Sérotonine, Florent-Claude Labrouste, waxes ironic over his certainty that one of his former girlfriends, Claire, a failed actress and an alcoholic, “will die alone, she’ll die unhappy, but at least she won’t die poor.” Fortunately for Claire, her father once made a good business deal involving a loft apartment, whose subsequent sale will enable his daughter to inherit “three times as much money as I will.” And so “a single real estate transaction had been enough for her father to earn considerably more than mine had spent forty years laboriously scraping together.” In fact, Labrouste/Houellebecq declares, “Money had never rewarded work, it had absolutely nothing to do with it, no human society had ever been built on compensation for work, and not even the communist society of the future was supposed to rest on such foundations … money went to money and accompanied power: that was the ultimate principle of social organization.”

Defeatism or awakened consciousness? Later in Sérotonine, the reader meets Aymeric d’Harcourt-Olonde, a fallen aristocrat and humanist breeder of dairy cows, who joins a group of farmers pushed to the limits of their endurance by the rules that the free-trade policies of Brussels have imposed on them, rules that have resulted in a drop in the price of milk. When Labrouste asks if “there won’t ever be any protectionist measures taken,” Aymeric gives him a defeatist reply: “Absolutely impossible … the ideological barrier is too strong.” Labrouste can’t disagree, because he’s quite familiar with free-marketeers of this kind: “They fight for their ideas; for years, I’ve had to face people who were ready to die for freedom of trade.”

So there’s the rift, the conflict that motivates the yellow vests as well as the neoliberal French president, Emmanuel Macron. Is Macron ready to die for freedom of trade? So far, the people dying in France are the small farmers, among whom the suicide rate is steadily rising. Whatever the current political momentum may be, what’s astonishing is that the oppression of less powerful people addressed not by a writer on the left but by the “reactionary” Michel Houellebecq.

Zola was on the same ground in 1883, when he described a small businessman named Baudu whose business is about to go under, unable to withstand the dominance of a big, insatiable department store. He’s besieged by the same forces as those that Aymeric confronts, and he doesn’t know whether he should put up a fight or surrender: “Business is business. There’s no way of getting around it. Oh, I admit they succeed, but that’s all. For a long time, I thought they’d ruin themselves. Yes, I was waiting for that… But well, no, it seems that nowadays it’s the thieves who make fortunes, while honest people starve to death. That’s what we’ve come to, I’m forced to bow down to the facts. And I do bow down, my God! I do bow down.”

Aymeric, too, is divided in his response to the inundation of the global market. His aristocratic background gives him much more weight than a nineteenth-century Baudu or a twenty-first-century small farmer. He leads a revolt, but in the end he surrenders to what he considers his own impotence. He bows down. He commits suicide.

Is Houellebecq just a defeatist? Or is he trying, like Zola, to sound an alarm, trying to awaken a population distracted and, in the end, stupefied by serotonin? Serotonin, which allows one to join the living dead.

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