Vernon Subutex 1

Despite Maclehose’s Press reputation as a publisher of typically wonderful translated fiction, and the temptation to take a completist approach to their new Read the World series (with its echoes of the Harvill Press’ numbered editions in the nineties), I found it difficult to be enticed by the fourth release, Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex (translated by the ever-reliable Frank Wynne). I suspect my suspicion of anything labelled punk, grunge or trash fiction originates in my lack of sympathy for the Beats. Certainly the cover was striking and unmistakeable, but was I really the target market? In fact, the novel is both ambitious and accomplished, nothing less than a panorama of French life at the beginning of the 21st century. In particular it focuses on Despentes’ generation, those who were born into an analogue world and have had to either adapt or die in the new digital age. Vernon has failed to adapt: having spent many pleasant years as the owner of a record shop – with the twin advantages of making a living out of his first love, music, and easy access to his second love, women – he now finds himself without an income:

“These days, his chances of finding work were slimmer than if he had been a coalminer.”

When Alex Bleach, the only one of his friends to have made it big in the music business, dies, and, more importantly, can no longer be relied on to pay his rent, Vernon also finds himself without a home. As he sofa-surfs from friend to friend – contacting them – of course – via Facebook – Despentes introduces us to his past (as he avoids contemplating his future), and a generation whose best years are behind them.

Rather predictably the novel, with its large cast of characters, has been compared to contemporary box sets. This seems both an unlikely and patronising comparison. Firstly, it has very little in the way of plot, though it does have plot-generating McGuffin in the form of tapes Bleach recorded and left with Vernon which a number of characters are keen to get their hands on. The most obvious predecessor for Despentes is, of course, Balzac, particularly when we learn there are another two volumes to come. There also seems to be a sly nod to Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manuel which also tells the stories of many characters but is centred on one apartment block: what could be more appropriate than a contemporary version where the writer is able to tell those stories because the protagonist is homeless?

Vernon has been unable to leave his youth behind; rather it has left him. When his friends left Paris for the suburbs he stayed behind. He is “haunted by the memory of the girl who got away” – or the girl whose possessions he dumped outside his flat when he discovered she was seeing someone else – an untypically decisive if hypocritical gesture (she had already forgiven him a number of affairs). Though seemingly able to easily charm women, he is wary of relationships:

“Vernon understands women, he has made a study of them. The city is full of lost souls ready to do his cleaning and get down on all fours to lavish him with lingering blowjobs designed to cheer him up. But he is too old to believe that all this comes without a series of reciprocal demands.”

“Friends are different”, he says, but as his friends get older, and begin to die, he increasingly isolates himself:

“After he buried Pedro, Vernon stopped going out, stopped retuning phonecalls. He thought it was a phase, that it would pass. After the deaths of several close friends, it did not seem inappropriate to need to withdraw into himself.”

Though he is not an unsympathetic character, Vernon is by nature a parasite. When Alex Bleach dies, his first thought is, “Who is going to pay his back rent?” In the one part of the novel where he demonstrates any talent it is as a DJ: using the talents of others to impress. His only other skill is his ability to seduce women, which he can also use to his advantage:

“As he stepped in, he noticed that the couch was not a sofa bed and besides was piled with mountains of clothes. If he was going to sleep here, he would have to share her bed.”

Perhaps the reason he remains sympathetic is that it is clear that he genuinely loves women even while he uses them. When he goes to stay with an old friend, Sylvie, he is initially delighted they are attracted to each other. Unfortunately her desire for him lasts longer than his for her, to the point he begins to drug himself so he can bear her company:

“He had left her to calm and went to look in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom where he found some tranquilisers. From that day on, he took one every morning when he heard her getting up.”

This is not a novel to renew your faith in humanity. Despentes roving narrative allows us access to the thoughts to her many characters, and most of it is unpleasant. For example, Kiko, a wealthy hedge fund manager:

“The cultural habits of the poor make Kiko want to puke. He imagines being reduced to such a life – over-salted food public transport talking home less than €5,000 a month and buying clothes in shopping mall.”

Or Noel, a right-wing thug whose hobbies include beating up the homeless:

“And remember to save up for when you have cancer, you fucking prole, the public hospitals are overrun by illegals from all over the planet who know France is the place to be. When it’s not North Africans being used to drive down working class salaries, it’s factories moving abroad to where people are starving. And why wouldn’t they?”

Despentes ability to inhabit the minds of her characters, and invest them with an individuality which rises above caricature, is the novel’s most astonishing achievement. Its final pages, where the narrative skips from person to person in a series of “I am”s which becomes steadily more intense makes Despentes’ choral intent clear. There’s nothing punk about this fiction except perhaps the energy which pours from its pages; it is both controlled and carefully crafted, a novel of our times and for our times.


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14 Responses to “Vernon Subutex 1”

  1. Emma Says:

    As you know, I couldn’t finish it. I couldn’t care about Vernon and I got tired of the Parisian/media crowd.

    But I love Despentes and her writing. She’s interesting, different from other writers.

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m not sure I was hugely interested in Vernon either, but I did find the novel full of other ineteresting characters. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work now!

  2. Jonathan Says:

    I’ve read a few reviews of her novels and they have all sounded interesting. I should try some of her work. Would you say this is a good place to start?

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    Your review just shows that it’s worth taking a chance on something different every now and again, even if your initial reaction is hmm, I’m not sure this is for me. The fact that it comes from a reliable, well-respected publisher makes a difference too – it’s almost certainly going to have something interesting to offer.

    Like Jonathan, I’ve seen quite a few positive reviews of this author’s work. It’s reassuring to see that you got a lot of out reading her too.

  4. hastanton Says:

    I loved this ….and no2 . No3 is out here but I’m waiting for it in ‘poche’ so I have the matching set (OCD!!). She completely captures the atmosphere of N Paris …although in no2 we do shift location . I would say it’s like a Fall And RRise of Reginald Perrin de nos jours!!

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’m interested in Despentes, but this, it doesn’t sound exactly subtle and the characters seem a bit cliched. The aging vinyl-head, the arrogant financier, the right wing thug.

    Think I’ll wait to see how you get on with the next volume.

  6. Man Booker International Prize 2018 – Predictions | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Press’ new Read the World series is also worth a place, with Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex 1 being one I liked far more than  I thought I might. And, apart from Belladonna, surely the other […]

  7. Michael @ Knowledge Lost Says:

    I was a little surprised to see Despentes on the longlist for the Man Booker International prize but I think you might have convinced me to try her again with this book.

    • 1streading Says:

      I must admit that this is a book I may not have read had I not come across a cheap second hand copy – it just didn’t seem to be ‘my kind of thing’. However, I liked it much more than I thought I would, though I hadn’t read Despentes before.

  8. International Booker Prize Predictions 2021 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] award’ – and a few such are in contention this year. The final volume of Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex trilogy (tr. Frank Wynne) is one – the first volume was long-listed in 2018, the admittedly weaker […]

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