First novel Baise-moi (Fuck Me) by Virginie Despentes 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XCiTés published by Harpercollins in 1999 which I edited, showcasing a new generation of young writers from France unpublished in English at the time.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
Look who’s back! Vernon Subutex: DJ guru of the nineteenth arrondissement. He is still homeless in Paris and more Peter Pan than ever. We first met him at the turn of the millenium as he was losing his record shop, flat and material possessions after his friend and benefactor, the rock star Alex Bleach, died of a drug overdose in a hotel bedroom.
Film producer turned sex predator, Laurent Dropalet, is desperate to find compromising videos revealing the truth about the death of his porn-star mistress recorded by Alex Bleach. He hires the Hyena, a tech whiz and ravening lesbian to track down the tapes (and therefore Vernon who has them); she switches allegiances to join the DJ and his cohorts.
“The language of banking is a metalanguage. It has taken the place of universal Newspeak.”
A victim of digitisation, Vernon’s fate mirrors that of other independent record shop owners selling vinyl as their world collapses when music lovers turn to streaming and DVDs. The subsequent fight back of the majors (Sony, BMG, Time Warner, Universal, EMI) leaves little room for passionate indie entrepreneurs to operate.
Vernon’s fall is swift and shocking. He embodies all of our contemporary fears: fast forward to 2020, and thousands of people are at risk of losing their homes due to Covid in one fell swoop, swelling the ranks of those in poverty and sleeping rough.
Thanks to his couch surfing, we meet an array of desperate single mothers and singletons, disillusioned fifty-somethings, tattooed or veiled teens with attitude, ageing porn stars and a gorgeous trans man, financiers addicted to filthy lucre and Columbia’s finest, users in rehab, angry hit men, and other irresistible supporting characters who could just as well be living in London, Berlin or L.A. given the parallel universes of contemporary urban life.
At the end of Volume 2 we left Vernon and his groupies in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont planning on “going off grid” and adopting a nomadic lifestyle. Now out of the big city in the regions, they set up camp for a few weeks in one place, and then move on. All internet connection is forbidden at the camp. They hold “happenings” : drug-free raves. The power is in the music not the chemicals. And Vernon – who had never attracted women in the conventional alpha male sense, being more geeky than sporty – now radiates an ethereal purity because of his material-free independence. He is more David Bowie than Johnny Halliday.
Vernon has changed, “previously he wasn’t surrounded by girls fighting for his favours. Too much demand kills the demand – he’s less insecure than he used to be, but that’s logical: in the camp, he fucks anything that moves. At other times, people talk about the awakening of the Kundalini to explain these curious sensations, the strange visions, the trance-like states that overcome him without warning.”
As the motley crew unites as one every few months at the camp, dancing to Vernon’s music without drugs or special effects, more and more curious outsiders join in. Vernon is their Shaman. Word spreads about these events at which humanity comes together in an odd kind of spiritual communion. Even cynics emerge transformed, with new ways of seeing and being. “The end of every convergence is like the end of a house party.”
But what happens when you get a severe abscess and urgently need to see a dentist? The real world beckons. Vernon catches a train, accompanied by his girlfriend of the moment, Mariana. Landing in Paris, he stays with is ex-trader coke-fiend friend, Kiko, who is hellbent on creating a hedonistic theme park. Vernon tours the local cafés, looking for his old friend Charles, the alcoholic secret millionaire whose ex-teacher girlfriend, Véro, actively dislikes the DJ-turned-spiritual-guru.
Despentes’ portrait of an oddly lovable pair of bitter-and-twisted, schmozzled old drunks had me laughing and crying all at once. “Even if there was a lot of misery, their life together, she didn’t hate it. By the time she met him, she was already too old to tell herself that this was anything other than someone to cling to. She knew that she only put up with him because she was afraid of being alone. She was past the age – long past the age – of thinking love was anything other than a crock of shit, a scam to sell you microwaves and cars on credit.” When Charles dies, Vernon lands a surprise windfall of half-a-million euros for distribution at the camp.
Meantime, Laurent Dropalet is recovering from being assaulted by Aïcha – the daughter of his deceased porn-star mistress – and her tattoo-artist friend as a revenge for his actions. It is hardcore feminism at its best. And Despentes creates a superb and accurate portrait – that flies in the face of the usual stereotypes – of a young woman practicing her Muslim faith while she leads a normal life, not dreaming of becoming a Jihadi bride. Aïcha and Céleste go to ground after their attack on the pervert, but when Céleste is found in Barcelona by the mogul’s hired henchmen it all gets horribly nasty in a Pulp Fiction meets Irréversible kind of way.
Vernon’s surprise windfall of half a million euros disrupts the peace and harmony of life at the camp, “It was pandemonium. Everyone was in their own little bubble. Working on their own crazy idea . . .”
A Harbinger of Upheaval
Despentes creates a compelling snapshot of a society in flux as France is losing its authority on the global stage, and gradually becomes engulfed in extremism, be it from Far Right thugs; “the kids of guys who sold smack in the 1980s who are now Islamic fundamentalists”; or conservative hard-liners living in a bubble who scorn workers and the Left, and are covert racists. No wonder France Culture compared Despentes to a modern-day Balzac whose La Comédie Humaine is a superb panoramic study of human nature manifested in myriad forms at all levels of society.
“Why is it that, as soon as they come to power, people stop telling the truth?”
Shrewd and illuminating expositions are woven into the narrative of the “other France” that you don’t get in tourist brochures: a mercenary, intolerant Catholic Church does little to support the residents of the out-of-sight-out-of-mind banlieues housing workers of Maghrebi or Sub Saharan African origin, newly arrived immigrants, and those who are dead-end impoverished; the “bleeding-heart socialism” and the reformism of limousine liberals purporting to champion change are a dismal failure in the face of an antiquated state apparatus and rigid mindset; the murky role played by the French state in the Algerian war, exploitative colonialism and the Vichy regime is brushed aside; communities marginalised in distinctive neighbourhoods trying to get on with the business of living as best they can are more often than not feared as being potential purveyors of anti-state sentiment and extremism; the “bavures” of the French police who disproportionately target minorities are met with indifference; and the failings of an education system trapped in traditional tropes, beset by interracial, intercultural and intergenerational problems, is laid bare.
“The only solution is not to have kids, the times we’re living in are completely screwed-up. We keep coming back to the same situation.”
Despentes is eerily prescient in her portrayal of the beginnings of the collapse of society as we know it. The socio-economic grievances of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protest movement are now being highlighted to the extreme as France faces a unique economic, political and social dilemma in the face of Covid and terrorist attacks. The crisis could be an opportunity to redraw society as we know it, but will this happen? Politicians fiddling as Rome burns is more likely.
The Vernon Subutex trilogy is not for the faint-hearted. Despentes has worked as a prostitute, a housemaid, a freelance rock journalist and porno film critic. She is observant and visceral and tells it as it is, using dark humour for dark times. Her vivid, resonant language delivers a beautifully weighted punch right where it hurts.
Vernon Sullivan was the pen name used by Boris Vian for his novel J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (I Spit on Your Graves) in which he denounces the racism to which black Americans are subjected in their daily life. Subutex is the trade name for buprenorphine: an opioid used to treat smack addiction, acute pain, and chronic pain. Go figure . . .
The Vernon Subutex trilogy has sold over 1.5 million copies in France alone. Albin Michel have just published it as a three-volume graphic novel. It is an engrossing read. Buy it and see for yourself!
REVIEW of Vernon Subutex 1
REVIEW of Vernon Subutex 2
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