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An Exclusive Extract From Michel Houellebecq's New Novel, Serotonin

Posted on 21st August 2019 by Mark Skinner

Michel Houellebecq is one of France's most acclaimed and provocative authors. His novels, which include Atomised, Platform and The Map and the Territory, have claimed prestigious awards and sparked debate and controversy. Next month sees the release of his latest work, Serotonin. Over to Jason Arthur at Houellebecq's publisher William Heinemann for more details: 

'Love him or love to loathe him, there’s no question that Michel Houellebecq is one of the most interesting novelists at work today. He’s certainly one of the most discussed. France’s most famous living literary export is also mordantly funny, prescient and controversial. His new novel, fluently translated from the French by Shaun Whiteside, is about the current state of Europe, Western civilisation and humankind in general. It is a scathing, hilarious, offensive satire and instantly became the publishing sensation of the year when it was published in France back in January. We’re delighted to be sharing this opening chapter exclusively with Waterstones ahead of the book’s publication in September.'

Jason Arthur, Publisher, William Heinemann

It’s a small, white, scored oval tablet.

I wake up at about five o’clock in the morning, sometimes six; my need is at its height, it’s the most painful moment in my day. The first thing I do is turn on the electric coffee maker; the previous evening I filled the water container with water and the coffee filter with ground coffee (usually Malongo, I’m still quite particular where coffee is concerned). I don’t smoke a cigarette before taking my first sip; it’s an obligation that I impose upon myself, a daily success that has become my chief source of pride (here I must admit, having said this, that electric coffee makers work quickly). The relief that comes from the first puff is immediate, startlingly violent. Nicotine is a perfect drug, a simple, hard drug that brings no joy, defined entirely by a lack, and by the cessation of that lack.

*
A few minutes later, after two or three cigarettes, I take a Captorix tablet with a quarter of a glass of mineral water – usually Volvic.

I’m forty-six, my name is Florent-Claude Labrouste and I hate my first name, which I think was inspired by two members of my family that my father and my mother each wished to honour; it’s all the more regrettable that I have nothing else to reproach my parents for; they were excellent parents in every respect, they did their best to arm me with the weapons required in the struggle for life, and if in the end I failed –  if my life is ending in sadness and suffering – I can’t hold them responsible, but rather a regrettable sequence of circumstances to which I will return, and which is, in fact, the subject of this book; I have nothing to reproach my parents for apart from the tiny – irritating but tiny – matter of my first name; not only do I find the combination ‘Florent-Claude’ ridiculous, but I find each of its elements disagreeable in itself, in fact I think my first name misses the mark completely. Florent is too gentle, too close to the feminine Florence – in a sense, almost androgynous. It does not correspond in any way to my face, with its energetic features, even brutal when viewed from certain angles, and which has often (by some women in any case) been thought virile – but not at all, really not at all – as the face of a Botticelli queer. As to Claude, let’s not even mention it; it instantly makes me think of the Claudettes, and the terrifying image of a vintage video of Claude François shown on a loop at a party full of old queens comes back to mind as soon as I hear the name Claude. 

It isn’t hard to change your first name, although I don’t mean from a bureaucratic point of view – hardly anything is possible from a bureaucratic point of view. The whole point of bureaucracy is to reduce the possibilities of your life to the greatest possible degree when it doesn’t simply succeed in destroying them; from the bureaucratic point of view, a good citizen is a dead citizen. I am speaking more simply from the point of view of usage: one needs only to present oneself under a new name, and after several months or even just several weeks, everyone gets used to it; it no longer even occurs to people that you might have called yourself by a different first name in the past. In my case the operation would have been even easier since my middle name, Pierre, corresponds perfectly to the image of strength and virility that I wished to convey to the world. But I have done nothing, I have gone on being called by that disgusting first name Florent-Claude, and the best I have had from certain women (Camille and Kate, to be precise, but I’ll come back to that, I’ll come back to that) is that they stick to Florent. From society in general I have had nothing; I have allowed myself to be buffeted by circumstances on this point as on almost everything else, I have demonstrated my inability to take control of my life, the virility that seemed to emanate from my square face with its clear angles and chiselled features is in truth nothing but a decoy, a trick pure and  simple – for which, it is true, I was not responsible. God had always disposed of me as he wished but I wasn’t, I really wasn’t; I have only ever been an inconsistent wimp and I’m now forty-six and I’ve never been capable of controlling my own life. In short, it seemed very likely that the second part of my life would be a flabby and painful decline, as the first had been.

The first known antidepressants (Seroplex, Prax) increased the level of serotonin in the blood by inhibiting its reabsorption by the 5-HT1 neurones. In early 2017, the discovery of Capton D-L opened up the way to a new generation of antidepressants that operated more simply by encouraging the liberation through exocytosis of serotonin produced at the level of the gastro-  intestinal mucous membrane. By the end of that year, Capton D-L was on sale commercially under the name Captorix. It proved to be surprisingly successful overall, allowing patients to perform afresh the major rituals of a normal life within a developed society (washing, good neighbourliness, simple bureaucratic procedures), and unlike previous generations of antidepressants it did not encourage suicidal tendencies or self-harm.

The most undesirable side effects most frequently observed in the use of Captorix were nausea, loss of libido and impotence.

I have never suffered from nausea.

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