Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes, translated by Frank Wynne review: One of the books of the year, if not the decade
Bold and sophisticated, this thrilling, magnificently audacious picaresque is about France and is also about all of us
Virginie Despentes: For all the frenzy and set pieces, the caustic exchanges and wry asides, Despentes displays impressive control. Photograph: Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images
Vernon Subutex 1
Virginie Despentes, translated by Frank Wynne
Vernon knew his life had fallen asunder; not that he ever looked back. Mild, lazily attractive and unreliable old Vernon, fast approaching his half century, is not too keen on thinking. By the age of 20 he had found his preferred dream haunt – and so began working in Revolver, a cool Parisian music store. Boys envied him, girls lined up and eventually he ended up owning the place. No wife, no children, his parents died young, yet when it came to drugs, music and open access to the rampaging social scene, he couldn’t complain.
But nothing remains the same; his old buddies begin to die off, his hair goes white, the business folds and suddenly his cupboards are bare. The landlord is on his trail and even Vernon’s unemployment benefit has been cut. Welcome to 21st-century France, it could as easily be anywhere but the outrageously gifted film-maker and writer extraordinaire, Virginie Despentes, has set her epic social satire in Paris, specifically in the chaotic shark pool inhabited by screen writers, social media groupies, porn stars, failed musicians, random misfits and a controversial dead icon.
The dead icon is important – for many reasons. Alexandre Bleach – black, beautiful, tormented, irresistible to all women and probably not quite as stupid as his resentful friends claimed he was – had been paying Vernon’s rent. Now he is gone. Bleach’s Olympian drug consumption had become a source of wonder, even to fellow addicts. He also had a fondness for hotel rooms and at moments of despair would retreat to one.
As this brilliantly deadpan third-person narrative opens, Vernon is digesting the news that Alex, his sole financial support, has been found dead in a hotel bath.
On cue enter bailiffs poised to evict Vernon. He proceeds to pack and “remembers to rummage in the back of the wardrobe . . . for the pack of three videocassettes Alexandre recorded on his last visit. He could maybe sell them . . .”
The stage is set for what will prove one of the books of the year, if not the decade, and as it is the first volume of a trilogy and already has a cult following on France, the best advice is, simply, to read it and pass on the word.
No review could do it justice; think the vintage Martin Amis of Money and especially The Information or of Keith Ridgway’s neglected Celtic Tiger caper The Parts and then consider how effectively Despentes relegates Emmanuel Carrere and Michel Houellebecq to appearing almost ordinary by sheer force of her vivid and fluid prose, satirical observations, comic timing, extensive knowledge of ’90s music and, above all, her inspired, at times merciless, at times tender, flair for characterisation. Mayo-born Frank Wynne, one of the finest literary translators in Spanish as well as French, has not missed either a nuance or a comic beat and effortlessly conveys all the energy, wit, emotional intelligence and pathos of a singular work. The great Balzac would applaud this very human comedy which is a 21st-century nod to the narrative approach of 19th-century writers.
An established, often controversial, literary force of nature, Despentes is a bravura risk-taker, celebrated as the author of Apocalypse Baby and Bye Bye Blondie as well as for her autobiographical King Kong Theory. Her debut novel Baise-moi was published in 1992 and the film version was released in 2000.
Vernon is no hero but a very human Everyman upon whom it is belatedly dawning that all he can do is summon his charm in begging shelter from anyone with a vacant sofa. It is as if he has been asleep while everyone else has been grimly attempting to survive in an increasingly hostile and racist city.
For Emilie, at whose unsuspecting door he first arrives, the worn yet still handsome Vernon is a reminder of all she had lost as a secret lover of Alex. Once upon a time she used to play bass but now her instrument is stowed away. She has a real job and an immaculate if sterile flat. She has also become fat and invisible, she could kill Vernon but instead she extends embittered hospitality and even agrees to cut his hair. She wants him gone and after pressing money into his hands – flees. Experience and therapy enable her to reason: “It doesn’t suit her to have him stay here, she has no need to justify herself, still less to feel guilty.”
When the spotlight turns to screenwriter Xavier, married with one child, Despentes allows his racial views to articulate several lamentable home truths about modern France. Vernon wriggles towards a weekend of comfort by dogsitting the couple’s beguiling Colette. As the family leave, the house guest pauses before examining the contents of the refrigerator.
Meanwhile interest in the Alex tapes gathers momentum and more characters become involved in the search. One of these is the Hyena, a lesbian investigator whose most efficient weapon is social media. Vernon’s odyssey continues and some of the characters carry with them their individual histories of domestic violence and sexual confusion.
It is fast-moving and very funny, at times shocking. An elderly mother still grieves for an adult son who died of an overdose. But he lives in her memory only as the little boy he once was. Many of the characters are connected by shared pasts. For all the frenzy and set pieces, the caustic exchanges and wry asides, Despentes displays impressive control. Her burlesque is all-seeing and disciplined, not tidy, yet always dauntingly cohesive.
Vernon’s descent towards hell is graphic. When he teams up with a kindly Amazon skilled in the art of street survival, a moving encounter between two bereaved dog owners culminates in a devastating finale. The first question asked by police arriving at an assault scene is the race of the attacker.
Seldom has a novel with so much vicious humour and political intent also included moments of beautifully choreographed, unexpected tragedy. Bold and sophisticated, this thrilling, magnificently audacious picaresque is about France and is also about all of us; how loudly we shout, how badly we hurt. It is the story of now.
Eileen Battersby is literary correspondent and author of “Teethmarks on my Tongue”