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Vernon Subutex 3: Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll epic ends with a bang

Book Review: Virginie Despentes’s motley crew of Parisian misfits push boundaries

Vernon Subutex Three
Vernon Subutex Three
Author: Virginie Despentes
ISBN-13: 978-0857059826
Publisher: MacLehose Press
Guideline Price: £14.99

Yes, I am in full agreement with you that head shots of people who have written books are an irrelevance. Still, nice to see that instead of the usual pic of the 50-year-old woman writer sitting at a table in a comfort cut and half-smiling wistfully into the mid-distance, Virginie Despentes, in a Motörhead vest, has a fag in her mouth and stares out through a cloud of smoke.

Despentes, who takes her name from the part of Lyon where she was a sex worker, is also a former maid and freelance rock journalist. She has written more than 15 books; the film version of her first novel, Baise-Moi, which she co-directed, was the first film to be banned in France for 28 years.

Despentes has been described as the “rock’n’roll (insert name of any 19th-century novelist you care to think of)”. True, she is in some sense an “apostle of the gutter” like Zola. And, like Balzac, she can present a panorama of individuals shaped by socioeconomic circumstance. Like Eliot, characterisation is informed by psychological complexity.

All those aspects are present in the Vernon Subutex trilogy, translated by Frank Wynne. These volumes, which chart the lives of a chaotic and diverse group of Parisians – misfits, screenwriters, porn stars, musicians, temps, ex-city traders – do so with vigour, bustle and energy. The trilogy is an amphetamine epic, so skip the 19th century: let’s go ancient and say that Despentes has produced a rock ’n’roll Odyssey, but arguably with better women.


She likens the group to a mane of hair that needs to be brushed every morning to untangle the knots

In the first book, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, one-time record shop proprietor Vernon is down on his luck, couch surfing and living on the streets. A random comment he makes online that he has in his possession tapes of a dead pop star’s last interviews results in a crowd of disparate people pursuing him. In the second of the picaresque series, the downward trajectory continues. Vernon, homeless, spends most of his time in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. The tapes, when played, reveal the identity of a villain, and consequently unleash acts of vengeance.

Boundless intimacy

But by the third book, Vernon is established as a “shaman of the turntable”, living with a community of disciples. Vernon spins the music at periodic convergences: transcendent, invite-only dance parties of boundless intimacy – “a gentle, luminous confusion . . . Epidermises lose their boundaries, everybody becomes every body.” Yet the functioning of the community, as one of its members, ex-porn star Pamela, notes. requires “gruelling, practical effort”.

This tends to be women’s work: invisible, essential, not rewarded. She likens the group to a mane of hair that needs to be brushed every morning to untangle the knots. It is not a surprise when this seemingly harmonious community fragments.

Vernon, described as looking like Bruno Mars spliced with Keith Richards, offers gnomic reflection. He is aware of how all is contingent, tentative. “No one is solid. Nothing. No group. That is the hardest thing to learn. That we are tenants of a situation, not landlords.”

Never mind the revolution being televised, here's the massacre, which will also be serialised

Reliant on the frenzied hustling of his partner and manager Mariana, he leaves the ruptured community, travelling – including to Belfast – to play music. When he eventually returns to Paris, he notes simply, “It feels good to be here.” Coming from Vernon, Pamela considers this virtually a soliloquy.

Street philosophers

Vernon’s crowd are snappy, funny, loquacious, quick, brutal, thinkers, street philosophers, and so Vernon, although given top billing, accounts for only one individual in the equivalent of an ensemble film. We move in and out of the speech styles and worldviews of this kaleidoscopic crew, through third-person free indirect thought and embedded dialogue.

Frank Wynne’s flexible, fine translation means this happens in a manner that is thrilling and exhilarating to read, whether it’s hipster slang, dispassionate staccato or slow, misanthropic bitterness. When interviewed, Wynne said that capturing Despentes’ dialogue was like “trying to catch lightning in a jam jar”. Yet this is what he does.

No one perspective is privileged above any other in the panoply of voices. You are disgusted? Then, Despentes seems to say, be so by society too. This is a world of contradictions, pain and ugliness. These people are cynical and disaffected. They satirise their own society. Never mind the revolution being televised – here’s the massacre, which will also be serialised.

There are voices of hope: Patrice, who attends Nuit debout demos, feels that in France, in Spain, in Greece, in Portugal, in Ireland, there are still people who do not believe that putting power in the hands of ignorant psychopaths from the “best” families is the only possible reality.

But then we also have Kiko, former coke addict and stock market trader, who considers the cultural coding that results in Putin worship (“we’ve taught you to love the boss man”), and the obsolescence of the working classes. The language of banking, failed screenwriter Xavier feels, is a metalanguage that has taken the place of universal Newspeak. Considering some yachts of the super-rich at a marina, he wonders where the terrorists are, those warriors of the apocalypse who “were useless when it came to attacking the people who were really screwing up the world”.

Paris attacks

Hanging over the whole novel is Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan. People remember where they were on November 13th during the Paris attacks, and how afterwards “the grief clung to every wall”. Aicha, a Muslim and former law student now in hiding, considers that the French intelligentsia were not puzzled by the fact that none of the murderers was a practising Muslim. Instead they “frantically consulted the Qur’an as though it required only a Western eye to unearth the truth. To get it to spew out its violence.”

A boy playing with friends pretends to be Mohamed Merah, the gunman who killed seven people in Toulouse. Yet his mother notes that since the January 7th attack, he’s become patriotic, singing the Marseillaise as he brushes his teeth.

Singing, sound, music is everywhere in this book, and not just in the elevated psychoscape of the convergences. It’s simply a part of the fabric of life. When listening to the Bee Gees, it is noted, it’s hard to keep sulking. Vernon first fancied Mariana when he saw her imitating Axl Rose, “flailing like a daemon and brandishing an invisible mic”.

But also, how people respond to music culture is used as a barometer of attitudes. The internet, Vernon suggests, has meant everything must be instantly comprehensible and without nuance, rendering Lemmy from Motörhead “a pathetic sex maniac who collected military memorabilia”. But, Vernon points out, Lemmy “was not made for swots and prudes”. Applying that logic, the same could be said for this book.

Despentes can move from pulp fiction tropes and revenge motifs to episodes of horrific violence against women, to scenes of stripped-down delicacy and implication, such as a mother’s relationship with her adult son, or a woman’s relationship with her married employer.

The baggy narrative structure, where individual characters jostle against each other and have their say, moves towards a sudden, apparently shocking conclusion which, of course, the skilful Despentes has prepared us for all along. And then, beyond this, there is a mythologising coda, an imaginative projection which could be silly but is in fact deeply moving.

The first two books in the trilogy were reviewed with great appreciation and brio by the late Eileen Battersby in this paper. She imagined how Vernon would appear in the apocalyptic finale of Subutex 3: “a surreal, passive Prospero”. And there is indeed that quality, achieved through Despentes rough rock’n’roll magic.