Michel Houellebecq: The Writer Behind the Phenomenon

The French writer published Sérotonine last January at the age of 62. His latest work, which was recently translated in English and published in the U.S., offers another take on his favorite character, the depressed white male. While less political than Submission, the new novel with a print run of 320,000 copies made the front pages in France, despite the author’s silence. We took a look at the phenomenon that is Michel Houellebecq, winner of the 2010 Prix Goncourt for The Map and the Territory.
Michel Houellebecq. © Andreu Dalmeu/EPA/Shutterstock

Michel Houellebecq is a mystery. An elusive author who enrages as much as he fascinates, while escaping all attempts to define him. Is he a reactionary or an anarchist? A pornographer or a romantic? Funny or sinister? The answer is probably everything at once. Over the last 25 years and since his first novel, Whatever, he has become the world’s best-known French author, along with Patrick Modiano. This is particularly true in the United States, where his novel Submission sold 60,000 copies.

In January of this year, he wrote an opinion piece for Harper’s Magazine entitled “Donald Trump is a Good President,” in which he praised America’s withdrawal from foreign commitments and expressed his gratitude to the POTUS for not being an unconditional champion of neoliberalism. In the article, written for the U.S. public, he also confessed his hatred of the European Union, describing it as a “dumb idea that has gradually turned into a bad dream, from which we shall eventually wake up.” This is one theme of Sérotonine, his latest novel, published in France on January 4, 2019, and in the United States on November 19, 2019.

The latest representation of the Houellebecquian anti-hero is the narrator, a 46-year-old alcoholic agricultural engineer made impotent by a course of antidepressants. After leaving his Japanese lover, a woman 20 years his junior with a penchant for libertine parties, he holes up in a nameless hotel in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, before setting off to Normandy to find his only love, Camille, a young veterinary surgeon who left him ten years earlier. Upon arrival, he meets Aymeric, an old friend and cattle farmer. Suffocated by European regulations, the desperate farmer commits suicide after shooting at the police. Could it be that Houellebecq foresaw the “Gilets Jaunes” movement? This is what certain sycophants claim in painting the writer as a visionary.

This reputation started with Submission, released on January 7, 2015, the day of the attacks against Charlie Hebdo. A macabre coincidence that led the writer to immediately stop promoting his novel. In this political fable, Houellebecq portrays the election of a president from a “moderate” Islamist party, followed by shootings and explosions across Paris. The narrator, a university professor and expert of French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, observes the implosion on the democratic system and the “submission” of the population to sharia law with the collaboration of the left.

Caricatured by the same Charlie Hebdo, Houellebecq is unable to predict the future. However, he has a singular talent for defining our era, with its consumer society, exhaustion with inhuman bureaucracy, and the last gasps of the once dominant white male. He is the writer of high-rises and big-box stores, impersonal hotels and charmless brasseries, a far cry from the trendy, classical face of Paris. His narrators are also sadly banal, with sluggish libidos, reflecting a less than flattering image of the Western man’s condition. Despite Houellebecq refusing the label of sociologist, his novels can be read as observations of societal mores between the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Cloning is the theme of Atomized, while Platform deals with sex tourism, and The Map and the Territory covers corruption in the art world. And men’s fear of losing their dominant position runs through every novel.

This range of subjects has seen the author resonate both in France and abroad. “And he does so with humor and insight,” writes Adam Shatz, journalist for the London Review of Books and the New York Times Magazine. “Is he provocative, rude, even offensive? Indeed he is, but this may also account in part for his appeal among American readers who appreciate his irreverence. Maybe he reminds them a little of early Philip Roth, in his willingness to offend and rather single- minded obsession with sex. So there’s a pleasure in breaking taboos, perhaps, particularly in an era when Americans are finding it so difficult to talk about sex.”

Having discovered his calling as a writer through poetry, Houellebecq claims to be influenced by Baudelaire, Thomas Mann, and Bret Easton Ellis. And as an avid reader of philosophy, he is comfortable quoting Kant, Heidegger, and Nietzsche in his work. With his decadent, dandy mannerisms and defense of smoking, Houellebecq is an anti-modernist who throws misogynistic, homophobic barbs and fires shots at champagne socialists, environmentalists, and feminists. At best, Houellebecq’s women are presented as exotic creatures and the acme of otherness, but are generally escort girls, futile and greedy opportunists, or former, flabby mistresses portrayed as products past their expiration date. Readers are left wondering if the writer really shares the ideas of his male characters. Poetic license, or perhaps not.

Every one of Houellebecq’s books stirs up controversy in France, in part due to his stances on Islam. This is less the case in the U.S. “He’s not well-known enough to be really controversial in the States,” writes Adam Shatz. “He’s made a profession of playing the bad boy and that ensures him a certain amount of notoriety, which does not hurt sales.”

He has been turning down interviews with the French press since 2017, and also refused to promote the publication of Sérotonine, for which he provided journalists with nothing more than a wedding photo of himself wearing a tailcoat and derby hat. Yet despite his silence, the novel topped sales and stifled all other books released at the same time. Perhaps a disappearing act is the ultimate form of promotion?


Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq, translated from French by Shaun Whiteside, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019. 320 pages, 27 dollars.

Article published in the April 2019 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.