French author Michel Houellebecq, whose latest novel “Serotonin” was released earlier this month to widespread acclaim, has acquired the reputation of being something of a prophet. This is mainly because his previous effort, “Submission,” which envisioned an Islamicized France circa 2022, was released on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015. Another of his novels, “Platform,” which culminated with an Islamist terrorist attack on a tourist resort, was published a week before Sept. 11, 2001.
“Serotonin” has similarly been described by some as having foreseen France’s current Yellow Vest movement because it includes a passage describing a protest by French dairy farmers who block traffic on a major highway. There’s nothing unprecedented or even unusual about such protests in France, however. And while Houellebecq’s fictionalized protest ends in violence, the novel makes no further mention of it inspiring an insurrectionary mood or moment, or even generalized discontent.
But if Houellebecq is not the prophet some make him out to be, he is a visionary and above all an assassin. With each of his successive novels, he has managed to crystallize a particular social tension afflicting French society and, more broadly, Western civilization, while mercilessly eviscerating the conventional wisdoms and groupthink contributing to—or blindly ignoring—those tensions. And his acid humor accomplishes this in a way that makes it impossible even for true believers in those ideas to take them quite as seriously after having finished one of his page-turners. This, combined with his penchant for provocation, makes the appearance of one of his novels as much a social and political event as a cultural one.