Hello Daddy, Hello Mom
By Anna Aslanyan.
Virginie Despentes, Apocalypse Baby (tr. Siân Reynolds), Serpent’s Tail, 2013
An American friend, talking to me once about his distant Belgian relations, concluded proudly: “I’m basically French!” Had he read Virginie Despentes‘ latest novel, he wouldn’t have been so keen to exaggerate. ‘A relentlessly vegetarian France, full of interracial orgies, where every woman is ready to sodomise her neighbour, brandishing a Sandinista flag’ she depicts is miles away from la belle France we tend to associate with great culture and progressive values. Apocalypse Baby dispels this Anglo-Saxon myth, painting a bleak picture that leaves little hope for the future of France and indeed for the rest of the world.
To portray the ills of Western civilisation in a work of fiction without sounding prudish or reducing the narrative to an opinion column is a tall order, requiring the author to concentrate and pick only the most relevant threads. Despentes, best known for her shocking debut novel, Baise-Moi, later turned into a controversial film, chose to blend thriller elements into her social commentary, presumably to make the pages turn faster. But the two genres don’t mix seamlessly: one can never keep up with the other, so when the detective yarn inevitably overtakes the more contemplative passages, you have no time to fully appreciate the latter. I often wanted to fast-forward through the random bits of action that belong elsewhere and pause on the incisive observations that, despite the lack of consistency, merge into an acerbic critique of a society where any attempts to eliminate the gulf between haves and have-nots only make it wider.
The thriller paraphernalia aside, the main idea behind the book seems to be to satirise the French establishment. True to her role as its famous enfant terrible, Despentes wages a war on the smug bourgeoisie, particularly on big white men of letters reluctant to admit their time is up. Francois Galtan, a middle-aged novelist desperate to join the ranks of literary greats, is a cartoonish figure, an all-too-recognisable type who, at the prospect of being interviewed by a female journalist, immediately starts looking for a window in his busy adultery diary. When his daughter Valentine, a wild teenager in search of new nihilistic tactics, goes missing, it doesn’t stop him from posting spiteful comments on ‘the kind of blog that rabbits on with great seriousness about Literature with a capital L’, aimed at those who gave his book a bad review.
The novel captures, if only sketchily, various social groups, from lesbian separatists to leftist demagogues to Muslim hardliners to spoilt rich kids. Even while trying to shoe-horn the narrative into a pulpy, potentially screen-friendly book, Despentes still manages to pinpoint a number of things that, if analysed in a more coherent fashion, would provide an unflinching description of the crisis her country is going through. ‘The French need to see poor people who don’t insult them’ is but one example of her reflections on the segregated community where a schoolboy of North African origin sits through lessons where ‘the fear of the other’ is discussed, thinking that all the white whore at the blackboard really wants is to sleep with him.
Despentes’ gaze is at its most piercing when she turns it to the book industry to give us some glimpses into the backstage manoeuvres of the writers’ guild. As some of its members laugh at a publisher’s prediction that ‘one day people would want to read novels by young girls going into detail about their haemorrhoids’, others take it as a cue to revamp their prose style. When ‘writers who boasted of screwing teenage girls in Thailand’ are mentioned, it’s easy to see who’s on the receiving end of the dig. Having a private detective agency hired to find Valentine opens up new opportunities for the satirically inclined author. As Galtan’s email account is hacked by the company’s IT department, the full extent of his vanity is revealed: his half-hourly visits to his Amazon sales page are as pathetic as the messages he bombards his publicist with. If you set out to attack the literary rearguard, this kind of chance to spy on the enemy’s activities is not to be missed.
The narrative switches from the first to the third person and back, with some chapters narrated by Lucie, one of the detectives working on Valentine’s case, and others told from the perspective of different characters. Lucie is supposed to act as a middleman between the world of adults, rotten to the core, and problematic teenage territory. Her voice is more convincing than the third-person accounts; she can see what’s going on around her, but doesn’t pretend to understand why it’s happening or what can be done about it. The other detective working with her on the assignment, known as the Hyena, a former debt collector with a penchant for pretty girls, given to outbursts of violence, at first comes across as a caricature of a superagent who sleeps with her Ray-Bans on. When her early experiences are recounted you start to believe in her ability to read people’s thoughts, wishing the author gave her story more attention. Alas, the rules of the genre get in the way again as the camera cuts to the next scene, leaving the Hyena to dash to yet another secret meeting or gay orgy.
This tendency to abandon reflection in favour of action is especially frustrating when it comes to Valentine. It is never properly explained what it is that makes the fifteen-year-old so desperate as to say to the world: “I vomit you all”. Granted, a girl who swings between goth and punk, acting as a nymphomaniac one day and hanging out with a group of left-wing activists the next, who “can’t see any adults around her with any sense of direction” may well want to give it all the finger. But even as you learn about Valentine’s being gang-raped (a flashback to Baise-Moi and King Kong Theory, where Despentes talks about her own experience), or about her meeting with her mother, who abandoned her as a baby and doesn’t want her now, you fail to see why this teenager, as moody and attention-seeking as most of them, goes way beyond the usual repertoire of rebellious gestures.
Despentes has long been a vocal supporter of feminism, and here she apparently tries to make it more accessible for those who come from a conventional background, although Lucie’s example it’s unlikely to convert many people to the cause. Her life becomes even less eventful once she’s fallen in love with a girl and embraced the ‘big open spaces’, and their romance is not exactly a feminist dream. The sisterhood appears to be all about going on a macrobiotic diet and constantly changing hairstyles and clothes; as Lucie submits to her lover’s ‘idea of the most intoxicating femininity’, you wonder why this should be any more liberating than doing the same things to please the opposite sex.
When Valentine is eventually taken in hand by a soul-hunting nun, whose portrait completes this comic book, the consequences are, indeed, apocalyptic, but the whole set-up is so artificial you can’t shake off the suspicion that it has been squeezed into the last pages purely to further humiliate the establishment, an approach that smacks of breaking a butterfly on a wheel. At this point – if, like me, you are tempted to dismiss the book as unconvincing – try going back for a clue to the author’s intentions. As Valentine remembers her brief fling with the lefties, a hint is dropped: ‘They couldn’t even imagine the degree to which people from her background were indifferent to people like them, unless they wanted to write bad novels.’ Could this imply that the novel was meant as a parody, a device employed to make the satire all the more biting? That would account for most of the points raised above, although it would have been better to be able to guess it earlier. The parody, if that’s what it is, is rather subtle; let’s hope Despentes’ targets have all managed to recognise themselves straight away.
The finale, with its grotesque violence that strengthens the impression of a special-effects approach, has one further twist on feminism. While Valentine is disillusioned with sex and has grander things on her mind, her final gesture of rebellion against the hypocritical morals of late-capitalist society is deliberately pornographic. The ending suggests that the only way out of an aimless existence is through the same old door that lets people into this evil world. If so, humankind is really doomed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 2nd, 2013.