“Some said it was karma, the industry had grown at an extraordinary upturn in the era of C.D.s – selling their clients their whole discography on a medium that cost half the price to make and was sold for twice the price in shops . . . with no real benefit to music fans, since no one had ever complained about vinyl records . . .” Age twenty, Vernon Subutex started work as an assistant at the record shop Revolver, and took over when the owner moved to Australia. File sharing on the internet thanks to the likes of Napster and Limewire heralded the beginning of the end of the party. In 2006 he shut up shop.
Live for today, who cares about tomorrow?
Easy-going Vernon had drifted through Parisian night life, lost in music and high on sex and drugs, oblivious to time passing and how people change. “He didn’t do monogamy . . . Vernon understands women, he has made an extensive study of them. The city is full of lost souls ready to do his cleaning and get down on all fours to lavish him with lingering blow jobs designed to cheer him up.”
Friends marry, some move to the provinces, while others die. Bertrand is done in by cancer. Jean-No is killed in a car crash. Pedro is felled by a heart attack, (predictable when your best friend is the white stuff). Vernon becomes a recluse, holed up in his apartment, fuelled by junk food, TV box sets and nostalgia. An Icarus who flies too close to the sun on the waxy wings of complacency and hubris, he falls from paradise into purgatory.
“Alex’s passion for drugs came late and swept all before it. But the guy had always walked around with an invisible knife sticking out of his chest. He could laugh at the slightest thing, but there in his eyes was a fracture that nothing could prevent from becoming a yawning chasm.” When superstar Alexandre Bleach is found dead in a hotel room it is the beginning of the end for Vernon, since Alex was paying his rent. Evicted by bailiffs, Vernon is so dazed and confused he leaves home with 1000 euros in his pocket, and the 3 videocassettes which Alex had recorded on his last visit. Ogling girls in the spring sunshine, Vernon heads to the library to log into Facebook. Sofa surfing and dog sitting begins in earnest, as he travels back to the future revisiting long-lost friends.
Enter a carnival of characters as in a twisted fairy tale . . .
Emilie: an ex who has done two years of therapy but “is still incapable of saying what she really thinks.” She gives Vernon a haircut, and her laptop.
Xavier Fardin: a struggling TV screenwriter with a wife and daughter to feed, “A right wing cunt . . . the world is now aligned with his obsessions.”
Fifty-something film producer, Laurent Dropalet, wants to make a film about Alex Bleach. He is intent on finding the unseen footage and is desperate to track down Vernon.
Sylvie: sexy, single yummy mummy whose son leaves home to live with a practising Christian in a dreary neighbourhood. She had loved Alex Bleach “uninhibitedly,” and he had dumped her for porn star, Vodka Satana. “Sylvie had been one of the greatest fantasies of his youth” – Vernon is bowled over when he lands on her doorstep and ends up in her king-size bed. Shag pile carpets, a huge flat-screen TV and a supply of good food and good weed make for a comfortable love nest. But she has the tongue of a viper – “the constant salvo of negative opinions demolished him” – and turns nasty when provoked. Vernon does a runner. She morphs into a raging cyberstalker.
The Hyena: a porn mag journalist turned online film reviewer who hides behind 50 fake identities. “Writing positive reviews was not the most lucrative approach.” She is paid to spread poison in two or three hundred euro notes, “Inciting a media lynching is much easier than generating a positive media buzz . . . cruelty makes for better clickbait in this day and age.”
Lydia Bazooka: a journalist writing about Alex is a genuine fan of the dead star. “People say fans are not best placed to talk about musicians, but Vernon has always disagreed, after all, the fans are the only ones capable of staying awake for 48 hours straight to make sure they don’t miss a single tour date out in the sticks.”
Pamela Kant: Porn Star on the wane, whose best friend and flatmate, Debbie d’Acier, decides to become Daniel.
Vodka Satana: Pam’s rival, whose daughter Aïcha wears the hijab and knows nothing about her mother’s porno past since she lives with her disillusioned dad. “France persuaded her father that if he embraced her universal culture she would welcome him with open arms as she would any of her children. Fine promises but empty; Arabs with university degrees were still the bougnoles of the République and were kept, discreetly, outside the portals of the great institutions.”
Lesbian biker, Gaëlle, is from a well-heeled family. “She has the attitude of a princess. ‘Loser’ is not something that exists in her psychology. People like her are artists, bohemians, their lives are profoundly intense. They are never ‘skint’.” Gaëlle lives in a vast apartment owned by a guy called Kiko who throws shit-hot parties attended by everyone who’s anyone.
Vernon is duly installed as D.J. in Residence. When he falls in love for the first time in his life with Marcia, a beautiful Brazilian transgender model, Kiko flips. What was sweet turns sour. Mr. Superstar D.J. becomes a “lowlife skank” once again; sleeping rough and at the mercy of skinhead nihilists who go around beating up homeless migrants. Vernon is everyone and no one, a lost person sleeping on the streets of Paris.
The teeming capital city has a life of its own, offsetting Vernon’s physical decline: libraries, swanky flats, the Buttes-Chaumont, park benches, neighbourhood bars, McDonalds, the supermarket Monoprix, riding the Métro, sleeping rough in ATM booths, the view from the pavement . . . As Vernon’s situation deteriorates, the feeling of page-turning anxiety increases.
What lies behind the image?
Vernon Subutex 1 is universal in its portrayal of the harshness of urban life and the evolution of Western society over the last 25 years or so. Paris has always been an international cultural crossroads where celebrities from the worlds of fashion, music, art, literature and politics converge. Not much has been published in the UK about the underground scene, or what goes on behind the scenes in the Paris Media. The narrative is peppered with French and international cultural references.
To each generation its dead-end pleasures and burnout. Hubert Selby Jr, Jay McInerney, Toby Litt, Irvine Welsh and now Virginie Despentes bring it all alive, each in their way. At times, while reading, it felt as though I was back in West London as it once was, before the gentrifiers, addiction counsellors and disaster capitalists moved in. The past truly is a foreign country.
Virginie Despentes is a caustic, funny, shrewd observer. Frank Wynne has translated her audacious, fearless novel beautifully with an insider’s ear for subtle linguistic nuances and slang. Although many of the friendships are underpinned by desire, disillusion and envy resulting in back-biting and betrayal, the characters are touching and convincing, one way or another. They mess up, are messed up and mess each other up. The writing moves fluidly in and out of the points of view of the characters, alternating between first and third person which gives the story intimacy and a layered density.
When I first read Baise-Moi (Fuck Me), published by Florent Massot in the early 1990s, the visceral writing was like a sucker punch. I was editing XCiTés, an anthology showcasing a new generation of French writers as yet unpublished in English, with the aim of overthrowing stereotypes, and even creating new ones. I included what is now a classic scene from the novel. Despentes has authored over fifteen books since then, including Apocalypse Baby (2010), Bye Bye Blondie (2004), and the autobiographical essay, King Kong Theory (2006).
Her gallic punk feminism is a welcome breath of fresh air. Simone de Beauvoir may have inspired women in the 1950s and 1960s to find freedom and ‘self-empowerment’, but times moved on long ago. Through her writing, Despentes shows how the whole system is in a mess, and the way women are perceived and treated is bad and wrong. Their role in the world needs to change.
Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Frank Wynne | Maclehose Press, an imprint of Quercus | June 2017 £12.99 352pp | ISBN: 978-0857055415
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