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Houellebecq keeps France guessing with 'angry' new novel

Fiachra Gibbons

Agence France-Presse

Paris  /  Thu, December 20, 2018  /  09:03 am
Houellebecq keeps France guessing with 'angry' new novel

In this file photo taken on March 09, 2017, French writer Michel Houellebecq attends his first New York art show, in Manhattan, New York. Houellebecq's new novel 'Serotonin' will be published in French on January 4, 2019. (AFP/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

Having praised Donald Trump last week as "one of the best American presidents", Michel Houellebecq, the ageing bad boy of French letters, may have another shock up his sleeve.

The controversial writer, who made his reputation with bestselling novels about sex tourism, swingers clubs and everyday misogyny, has called his next novel after the "happy chemical" which engenders well-being and happiness.

"Serotonin", which will be published in French on January 4, and then in Italian a week later, comes months after Houellebecq married for a third time, to a Chinese woman some two decades his junior.

Wags on social media have joked that with such a feelgood title, the arch-miserablist may be softening his notoriously cynical view of life in his old age.

But others have warned that the nihilism that marked novels such as "Atomised", "Platform" and the Prix Goncourt-winning "The Map and the Territory" is unlikely to have been dented by three months of nuptial bliss with Shanghai-born Qianyum Lysis Li.

Critic Nelly Kaprielian, of the French magazine Les Inrockuptibles, says the story grapples with globalisation and the crisis gripping provincial France.

It features a "typically lone Houellebecqian narrator haunted by his past and failed loves, kept alive by an anti-depressant drug based on serotonin."

With the contents of the book supposed to be strictly under wraps until it goes on sale, Kaprielian called it a "fine twilight novel, perhaps the most sombre by the author."

Channeling popular anger 

With his well-publicised loathing of the EU and liberal causes, Houellebecq became something of a pin-up for the French far right after his last highly-controversial novel, "Submission", which imagined life under sharia law after the election of an Islamist as French president in 2022.

It appeared the same day jihadists attacked the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris in January 2015, killing 12 people, including one of the writer's closest friends.

Houellebecq, 62, cancelled his promotional tour after the massacre and went into hiding, later reappearing to give a tearful interview on French television.

But according to Kaprielian, in "Serotonin" his politics veer more towards the far left, "if you had to categorise them, or rather towards the angry and 'apolitical' yellow vests" protest movement, which has shaken France in recent weeks.

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Houellebecq sparked much eye-rolling on social media last week with an article in the US magazine Harper's declaring Trump a good president even if he was "an appalling clown".

The writer rejoiced in the belief that his presidency would herald the end of American imperialism.

"The United States of America is no longer the world's leading power. This isn't necessarily bad news for Americans," he wrote. 

"It's very good news for the rest of the world. The Americans are getting off our backs. The Americans are letting us exist," he added.

Houellebecq's publishers Flammarion said they are printing 320,000 copies of "Serotonin" for its first run, an exceptionally high number for France.

His last book "Submission" sold around 800,000 copies in France alone.

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