:: Article

‘This is the third millennium, everything is permitted’

By Oscar Farley.

Virginie Despentes, Vernon Subutex I, Maclehose, 2017

This review comes with a caveat: Virginie Despentes’s work is not really written for me. Okay, that’s crude, and I’m sure Despentes would have something to say about it – but the work that brought her to prominence was pitted against the male literary establishment. Her first novel Baise-Moi (1992, trans. 2002) is a feminist rape-revenge thriller; the autobiography-cum-manifesto King Kong Theory (2006, trans. 2007) was written ‘as an ugly one for the ugly ones […] for all those girls that don’t get a look-in in the universal market of the consumable chick’. Not only this, but Despentes’s work changes the lives of those it is made for. I discussed her work with one such person at a house party, who referenced one particular shot in Despentes’s own film adaptation of Baise-Moi (2000) of the two protagonists after being raped. One acted ‘as you’re told recently abused women act’, the other as if she had been beaten up – she had nothing valuable there. They said it fundamentally changed how they considered rape; it was eye-opening that rape could be treated like that.

What Despentes means for me will not be the same as what she means for other readers – an obvious point, but the potential gap between the experiences of readers is so large here that it needs to be highlighted. Yet the back of my proof copy of Vernon Subutex I displays reviews and taglines suggesting a universal audience instead: ‘Who is Vernon Subutex? […] a mirror who reflects us all’.

Vernon Subutex is a former owner of record store Revolver who had to sell his shop in the wake of the internet, Napster and streaming. He lives quietly in a Parisian flat (‘His little bubble is snug. He can survive if he holds his breath’), a flat paid for by Gainsbourg-esque pop star and old friend Alex Bleach; Alex has started to go mad, fixated on ‘delta waves and gamma waves, the creative process and the idea of making music that acted like a drug, that would modify neuronal pathways’. When Alex suddenly dies, Vernon is evicted from his flat with only some clothes, books, and three videocassettes Alex recorded, his ‘last will and testament’. Vernon crashes on the couches of various old friends, trying to find money to retrieve his possessions from storage; meanwhile, film producers, private detectives, journalists, porn actresses and squatters chase after Alex’s final tapes.

The scope is breathtaking and the words tear off the page, but for all the punk pursuits the above synopsis suggests Despentes’s focus is on character rather than plot. Nearly every separate chapter introduces a new figure in some tangled relation to Vernon. Identity is everywhere. The internet is not just for messaging and news but a place where multiple fake identities can be bought and used to destroy people, films, bands. The right wing are not a homogenous army marching to Marine Le Pen but split between skinheads, students and members of the middle class inadvertently fighting one another. Paranoid fantasy might be ‘a symptom of the times’ but identity is not merely combative; there are multiple trans characters, and in one of the book’s most strangely touching passages Vernon defends his interest in transwoman Marcie: ‘You’re not going to believe this, but I came to the conclusion – and believe me I was as shocked as anyone, but I had to face facts: we don’t really care about pussy. We don’t care. There’s more to a girl than her pussy.’ Despentes presents a mini-panorama, if not of French society in general, of the niches and countercultures: the passing punks of the ’80s to today’s fractured youth.

This character focus results in a plot with a glacial pace; it may be eminently readable but, apart from Vernon’s decline, very little happens and many of the characters only appear once or twice. Up until the last fifty pages or so, the book feels like the very opening moves of a chess game – a couple of pawns or a knight – and it’s difficult to work out any trajectory, left waiting for the web of characters to explode. This is also a consequence of Vernon Subutex I being the first book in a trilogy; all three volumes are available in French, but English speakers will have to wait until next January for the release of the second translation. Apparently, Despentes was making edits to the third volume up until its publication in May, just after the presidential elections between Macron and Le Pen; it will be fascinating to discover not only what happens to Vernon and those surrounding him, but how Despentes navigated the increasingly volatile and extremist politics of the last two years.

Oscar Farley 
recently completed his MPhil at the University of Cambridge focusing on comic strips. He has written for the Times Literary Supplement and The Mays, and was recently long-listed for the Notting Hill Essay Prize.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 11th, 2017.