Vernon Subutex 2 Virginie Despentes Review

virginie despentes vernon subutex 2 review bookblast diary

Virginie Despentes debut novel Baise-moi (Fuck Me) was an overnight sensation in France, selling 50,000 copies for éditions Florent Massot in 1994 before being picked up by éditions Grasset and J’ai Lu. Today sales of her novels are stratospheric. I have admired her writing and voice and chutzpah from the moment I first read her, and included her in the anthology XCiTés published by Harpercollins in 1999 which I edited, showcasing a new generation of young writers from France unpublished in English at the time. Her Vernon Subutex trilogy was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. All three volumes are reviewed for BookBlast Diary. Read our interview with her original publisher, Florent Massot

A Hard-partying Life

Look who’s back . . . and sleeping rough now that sofa surfing is a thing of the past: Vernon, Mr. Superstar D.J. and former owner of cult record shop ‘Revolver’. At the end of Vernon Subutex 1 he was beaten up by a gang of neo-Nazis – along with his TV screenwriter friend, Xavier, who was trying to rescue him but ended up comatose in hospital instead.

He is off his head. He has episodes when he zones out. It is not unpleasant. From time to time, he tries to reason with himself: he cannot stay here indefinitely, it has been a cold summer, he will catch another bout of flu, he needs to take care of himself, he needs to go back down into the city, find some clean clothes, do something [ . . .] Painfully, he climbs over the railings separating the communal garden from the property where he has taken to sleeping. He grips the branches and hoists his body up almost falling flat on his face on the other side. He ends up kneeling on the ground. He wishes he could feel sorry for himself, or disgust. Anything. But no, nothing. Nothing but this absurd calm.”

Vernon charms the builders renovating a house where he sleeps at night, is fed out of tupperware boxes by a tiny little old lady, is befriended by Charles, “a loudmouth and pretty crazy” who keeps his win on the Lottery secret, and uses it to buy wine for his homeless mates and neon-bright trainers from Go Sport. They are joined by a sexy young nutter who “has a piece missing” and is a potential troublemaker. So Vernon takes up another homeless mate’s offer, and leaves Les Buttes-Chaumont park to camp out nearby on a disused railway line, La Petite Ceinture.

Catch me if you can!

Everyone is out looking for Vernon: Emilie, his ex in a red coat who regrets having thrown him out of her apartment; fifty-something sleazeball film producer, Laurent Dropalet, who wants to make a film about Alex Bleach and has lots to hide, Gallic Harvey Weinstein that he is; his hireling the Hyena, porn mag journalist turned online film reviewer who double-crosses him; Lydia Bazooka an old skool music journalist; lesbian biker, Gaëlle, from a well-heeled family; porn goddess Pamela Kant whose star is waning; ultra-religious hijab-wearing Aïcha, daughter of Pam’s dead rival Vodka Satana who was nuts about her sexy rock-star lover, Alex Bleach; and Aïcha’s angry, embittered father, Sélim, who is infuriated by the way his daughter has been brainwashed by a doctrinaire imam.

Everyone is out looking for the lost tapes: Alex Bleach gave Vernon a superlative interview, as yet unseen and unheard, before he died in mysterious conditions. “My aristocracy is my biography: I’ve been stripped of everything I had, but I experienced a world that we tailor-made to our own specifications, a world where I didn’t get up in the morning thinking let’s go conform.”

The content of the rushes is the ideological heart of the Vernon Subutex trilogy, and not just volume 2: namely death by capitalism of indie music culture as it is commodified, cleaned up, cleaned out – its “alchemies of enthusiasm”crushed by cash and celebrity.

 “We entered into rock music the way you enter a cathedral, and our story was a spaceship.”

Despite his stinking skeletal state, Vernon’s charm is still a magnet (even neo-Nazi thug Loïc succumbs, and begins to see things differently, with dire consequences). Mr. Superstar D.J. ends up spinning the decks for his friends at a local bar, Rosa Bonheur. He becomes the god of Les Buttes-Chaumont park, as everyone gathers around him to form an alternative festive community.

Sleazeball Dropalet gets his comeuppance when he is tied to a chair (read the book to find out what happens to him), and a campaign of graffiti terrorism is successfully plotted and executed, with “RAPIST and MURDERER sprayed on his house in letters three metres high.

A comédie humaine for the 21st Century

Virginie Despentes heralded her arrival on the scene in 1994 with a novel that packed an electrifying punch: Fuck me (Baise Moi). Her writing has matured and deepened; her rage is now like a fine-tuned exocet missile, blasting image and hypocrisy.  

Vernon Subutex 2 is as fast-paced, audacious and hilarious, in a gallows humour way, as the first volume. It is unputdownable. There is great deal more going on beneath the surface of what seems, at first read, to be a picaresque romp through the seismic aftershocks of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll a.k.a. prostitution, overdoses, ‘n’ musical fukries.

Despentes’ razor-sharp, satirical eye misses nothing when it comes to dissecting Parisian social classes and ideologies through her portrayal of lost rebels without a cause who are all washed up with nowhere to go. We get a very real feel  – a genuine inside take – on myriad lifestyles and lives which remain invisible in plain sight like a parallel universe.

Very good, very convincing writing about homelessness is rare – two unbeatable classics being The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by WH Davies (1908) and The Grass Arena by John Healy (1988). According to a report of the Abbé Pierre Foundation released in February 2015, nearly 10 million people are in a volatile housing situation, of which 3.5 million are poorly housed or actually homeless, or in a hostel, or camping out a makeshift shelter. The number of homeless people in France has increased by 50% in ten years.

The Vernon Subutex trilogy is less Tolkien or Dickens, and more Balzac or Zola; a comédie humaine for the 21st century. That it has sold over a million copies in France is not surprising. Volume 1 was on the Man Booker International shortlist. What awaits Volume 2 ? I can’t wait to read volume 3 . . .

Vernon Subutex 2 by Virginie Despentes translated from the French by Frank Wynne | Maclehose Press, an imprint of Quercus | June 2018 £12.99 336pp | ISBN: 978-0857055842

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About Georgia de Chamberet 377 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.