Virginie Despentes has been producing radical stuff for most of her writing career, (her work includes a couple of cult novels, a feminist treatise which scandalised British feminists and a film which was banned in France for a time) but with the Vernon Subutex trilogy she has edged towards the mainstream, with an International Man Booker shortlisting and a Figaro endorsement from Frédéric Beigbeder (Houellebecq’s wingman in the bad boys of French literature show). The third instalment has yet to make it across the channel; for now we’ve got volumes one and two, pushing 700 pages between them.
But where to start describing this sprawling soap opera of a story? It all kicks off when Vernon, forced to close his Bastille record shop, gets evicted from his Paris apartment and embarks on a couch surfing spree which quickly spirals into sleeping on the streets. Somewhere along the way he stashes a bunch of video tapes left to him by his friend, dead pop star Alex Bleach. The tapes, allegedly containing the last words of Alex, achieve notoriety, but Vernon carries on along his downward trajectory oblivious to the bunch of misfits hot on his tail.
This potentially spurious premise paves the way for a whole bunch of capers involving ageing Parisians: Vernon’s meanderings are a vehicle for exuberant digressions into the heads of a riotous cross section of forty something ex movers and shakers. There’s (for example) a racist right wing script writer, a porn star, a playboy financier, a wife beater, an ageing blonde, a Muslim intellectual, a lesbian social media manipulator, a Brazilian transvestite. And have I mentioned the encyclopaedic musical knowledge? It could easily dissolve into chaos, but somehow Despentes keeps it together and we leave Vernon at the end of the first book shivering on a park bench, semi-delusional with fever.
Volume one careers along at such a pace that you don’t have time for such thoughts, but during volume two the whirligig slows enough to allow you to wonder where the normal people are. It could be a reference guide to contemporary French genres and subcultures. Through the eyes of this disparate group Vernon and Alex, and the concept of modern stardom, are examined, dissected and sent up.
“Alex Bleach was a cretin, arrogant and fragile, the archetypal fucked-up poet – a little shit who only thought about money, but played the protest singer on the covers of his albums. The artist in all his glory: they think they can do what they like and they despise those who do the work, the real work. The problem with the public, often, is that they choose the most pathetic leaders. People love to be lied to. This was something Alex understood very well. He lied in every interview he gave, and the public adored him.”
Considering the whole saga revolves around a set of video tapes containing a self-interview from the now-dead rockstar, the actual monologue, which is finally revealed in volume two, is one of the low points. But to be honest, by the time I got that far, I was so invested in the concept that it didn’t matter. Yes, in places it’s shocking. Yes, there were moments when I wondered where it was all going. The cast of characters, in all its diversity, mainly represents the current preoccupations of the French liberal intelligentsia. But then there were the aha moments which left me feeling there was a master puppeteer behind the scenes. Despentes winds up proposing a new model for a society where people of wildly differing worldviews manage to live in some kind of harmony, with our friend Vernon as its reluctant leader.
“Within the camp, there are potential conflicts, but none has yet burst into the open. That will come. Between those who never stop working and those who want to sleep, those who like to lead and those who can’t stand being told what to do, those who only think of getting wasted and those who claim that drugs destroy groups, those who want to talk seriously and those who can only chat shit, those who want to sleep with everyone and those looking for monogamy … There will be problems involving money, egos, manipulation, betrayal … There will be every conceivable fuck up and every opportunity for disappointment. But right now, they are preparing for the third ceremony. They are not celebrating anything. They are doing it because they can.”
Any Cop?: A wild ride and I’m definitely on board for volume three.