Virginie Despentes remains best known in this country for her 1993 debut novel, Baise-Moi, about two abused young women who set off on an orgiastically murderous road-trip round France. In 2000, she became notorious when she collaborated on the hardcore film of the book, which ran into certification problems, with Alexander Walker fulminating about the complete collapse of public decency.
Despentes has now published some 15 novels altogether, celebrated in France as grunge or ‘trash’ fiction — and a polemical, erratically feminist, memoir, King Kong Theory, describing her own experience of rape and prostitution, and calling for a new aggression in female sexuality.
When she was 35, Despentes (a pseudonym, referring to a quarter in Lyon where she was a sex worker) came out as a lesbian, saying it was nice not to be bothered about male approval any more and a relief not to be preoccupied with ageing — so much harder for heterosexuals, she claimed. ‘Seduction exists between girls, but it’s cool; one isn’t dumped at 40.’
Despentes is now 48 and a member of the Academie Goncourt. Vernon Subutex 1, which sold 300,000 copies in France, is the first novel to be translated from a trilogy which she completed this May with Vernon Subutex 3, taking in the attacks of 2015 and 2016 and the ‘Nuit Debout’. She is attempting here a large panorama, or fresco, of contemporary French society — or at least of those members of it who were primarily formed by youth culture and now find themselves left behind by it.
Her hero, sexy Vernon, had a fine old time between the ages of 20 and 45, running a vinyl record shop, a job which provided a plentiful supply of interchangeable girls and cool friends in the music world. But in 2006, thanks to the digital revolution, the shop shut. ‘These days, his chances of finding work were slimmer than if he had been a coalminer.’ The friends with whom he spent years dancing, drinking and doing drugs, have begun to die — or collapse into family life. Nearing 50, Vernon has his benefits cut off. No longer able to pay the rent, he is evicted from his flat, with no more than a backpack.
The novel follows him round Paris, as he tries to charm old acquaintances into letting him sofa-surf or, in the case of female friends, share their beds, if need be. But then this ruse too begins to fail him and he ends up on the streets, begging. So this traverse of society allows Despentes to paint a broad picture, effusively giving voice to one character after another, from an arrogant hedgie to an alkie derelict, in a kind of frenetic montage. Many of these colourful wackos have been given Amisianly cartoonish names — Pamela Kant and Vodka Satana being former porn stars, Lydia Bazooka a journalist…
What Vernon has going for him, providing a bit of a plot hook, is that he owns some rare confessional videos made by a former friend, a star singer called Alex Bleach, just before he drowned in his bath. Now film-makers and would-be biographers are desperate to get hold of them, so there’s a chase element tying the episodes together.
Moreover, it turns out that when Vernon spins the records as a DJ, he’s still magic, a wizard at bringing people together. For Despentes still believes in music as a form of communal salvation and references her favourite bands keenly. At one point, contemplating the horror of surrendering to middle age and parenthood, it is said quite simply: ‘Either you were wrong to listen to Slayer when you were 20. Or you’re living the wrong life now.’ Or neither? Or both.
Despentes is admired in France for her sympathy for those excluded from the mainstream of society. However, she shows herself here to be, in her own way, pretty savagely dictatorial herself — for example laying down the law about ageing as a general catastrophe. ‘Past the age of 40, everyone is like a bombed-out city.’ Really, Virginie? Apparently so:
When you’re young, you don’t realise the cruelty of what is inexorably happening. You know it is happening, you simply don’t realise. Like most girls, Sylvie thought of her beauty as something that was hers: she might grow old, but she would still be beautiful. Being trapped in this skin has become a tragedy, a terrible injustice…
Philip Larkin included a poem by Gerald Gould in his Oxford Book of 20th Century English Verse with such a memorable first line: ‘You were young — but that was scarcely to your credit…’