Review: Cher Tanon Virginie Despentes

Turn Off Tune Out Drop Out Sell Out Buy In

The Vernon Subutex trilogy is classic Virginie Despentes: pulpy, in-your-face, impudent. Her characters are outsiders and misfits – they contend with unrelenting misery, disillusionment and injustice (self-proclaimed or otherwise), drug use, and physical violence. They are largely misanthropic, cynical and alienated in a way people on the fringes of society often are, and they define themselves and their peers through lifestyle interests such as music tastes, aesthetic choices and political opinions.

In this sprawling epic, originally published in French between 2015 and 2017 and simply titled 1, 2 and 3, then translated into English by Frank Wynne, the titular main character is an ex-record shop worker-cum-man-about-the-indie-rock-scene who finds himself unemployed and homeless, via the triple threat of the music industry’s digital assimilation, gentrification and the death-by-OD of his benefactor and famous pop star friend Alex Bleach. It picks up from her prior novel Apocalypse Baby (2015), with guerrilla private investigator the Hyena making a re-appearance. This time however, the plot is more ambitious, with a revolving twenty-character cast. Many are aging Gen Xers, each having to grapple with the choices they made in their youth. Xavier is an ex-hardcore, holier-than-thou dude, a struggling film producer in an unhappy marriage who strikes a normcore aesthetic and harbours alt-right views. Emilie is an ex-bassist in a once-popular punk band, a former wild child, ‘one of the guys’ who got ‘sidelined’ when the band broke up and she lost relevance. Patrice was a Marxist Hell’s Angel, except ‘he packed in the Angels… but he kept the look. He had no choice… Even when he wears a suit and a turtle neck, they show.’ Some, especially Vernon himself, are evidence of what ‘a very poor preparation punk rock had been for later life’, as Despentes puts it in Bye Bye Blondie. The trilogy is an alt-Gen X interpretation of the state of subculture: notions of ‘authenticity’ (as a misfit) and ‘selling out’ (as an artist) linger. Fear of change and lack of money are prominent features in Vernon Subutex.

But the trilogy is also an allegory on the fallout of the 2008 global financial crisis, the intensification of neoliberalism in western political and cultural spheres and the things people do to cope – Lauren Berlant’s ‘cruel optimism’, so to speak. In 3, we find Vernon and his posse – which includes his lover Mariana and the Hyena, plus Olga and Laurent, two vagabonds he befriends while living on the streets – co-existing in a roving commune in remote locations throughout France. Xavier, Patrice, Emilie and other friends frequently visit. The re-discovery of Alex Bleach’s tapes (which he self-recorded while coked up before his death) has prompted the Hyena to begin setting up ‘convergences’ that see Vernon as the resident DJ, with Alex’s binaural beats mixed within the tracks.

These raves are underground parties: news about them spreads by word-of-mouth, attendees are picked up in cars at a meeting point to be driven to the ‘real’ location, and they cannot carry any digital devices whatsoever. No drugs are involved: Alex’s ‘alpha waves’ (‘because he couldn’t string three chords together or write a hook worth shit’) are the drug; rave attendees describe an inexplicable sensation of euphoria and transcendence at these events. It is hypebeast grifting at its best, but financial transactions aren’t involved – instead, people are asked to bring food and other items they may want to trade for their Experience, and these are placed in the commune’s ‘store’ to be used whenever necessary. In the world of Vernon Subutex, this cashless commune gives Vernon and his crew a way to drop out of society while still sustaining themselves.

Nevertheless, Vernon can’t drop out completely: he encounters severe problems with his teeth and has to return to Paris to see a dentist. There, he discovers that Charles, a wino friend he used to hang out with in the park, is dead, and had been a millionaire all along, thanks to a secret lottery windfall. Charles has instructed his wife Véro to split the inheritance with Vernon, who after much internal discord, breaks the news to his friends. Herein, that age-old axiom ‘money corrupts’ takes effect: everyone has an opinion on how they should use the cash, causing a rift that results in Vernon leaving the group.

Back in the city, Vernon experiences immense difficulty reassimilating to straight society. Thanks to Mariana, a techno-head millennial (‘she was involved in techno in the same way Vernon was involved with rock’), he manages to secure DJ gigs at various locations throughout Europe. Meanwhile, a film producer named Laurent Dopalet is hot on the trail of Céleste and Aïcha, who in 2 had orchestrated his abduction in his apartment, tying him down and tattooing ‘RAPIST’ and ‘MURDERER’ on his back. In Alex’s tapes, Dopalet is alleged to have played a part in the death of Aïcha’s mother, the porn star Vodka Satana, who the former had briefly dated.

I did say it was sprawling, didn’t I? It is difficult to summarise the plot for a book review without it all sounding lurid and juvenile. I believe this is by design. Vernon Subutex is not a book written to be sacrificed at the altar of literary criticism. Echoing Despentes’ previous books, events play out akin to a soap opera, the characters’ visceral interior lives juxtaposed with dreamlike evocations of their surroundings. This creates an atmosphere that is the textual equivalent of an M.C. Escher painting or a Bong Joon-ho film. If 1 was a comment on the gentrification of counterculture and 2 was about the fracturing of working-class solidarity under laissez-faire capitalism, then 3 is when both come to a head: the union of Vernon and his friends is ruptured by the possibility of financial gain, then by the greedy manipulation of one of their kind. Midway in 3, Alex Bleach’s ex-manager, Max, sees an opportunity and re-emerges, eventually working in cahoots with Dopalet to transform the raves into a money-making enterprise. Like the others, he is true to form: a ‘working-class punk’, ‘hustler’ and ‘con artist – the sort of guy who can turn the most chaotic situation to his advantage’. To that end, greed and desire are often at loggerheads in Vernon Subutex: at first the secondary narrative is about acquiring and incentivising Alex Bleach’s tapes, then it is about creating a quasi-utopia and acquiring social capital from the raves. Above all it is about associating with Vernon and his devil-may-care lackadaisical attitude, the ‘guru’ and ‘shaman’ who appears to be free from the trappings of neoliberal yearnings. By having Vernon close, they remain tethered to nostalgia and their youth – characters are often struggling with change and reminiscing about ‘the old days’. The commune is a sanctuary: at one point in 3, after the dissolution of the group, someone feels ‘wistfulness at realising how much everything about her life has changed since then and how bitterly she misses everything about her former life… The camp was the last thing she could cling to.’

Vernon Subutex follows a theme set in earlier books by Despentes, the rape-revenge novel Baise-Moi and manifesto-memoir King Kong Theory, as well as lesser known works Bye Bye Blondie and Pretty Things, plus the multiple award-winning Apocalypse Baby: the status quo sucks, but we’re all complicit in it one way or another, regardless of our political leanings, sometimes even in spite of them. Consequently the narrative is comfortable with contradiction; Despentes trusts the reader to make up their mind. In presenting characters who don’t always act in alignment with what they say they believe in, Vernon Subutex reveals both capitalist society’s debauched façade and the stunted imaginations that keep the machinations of neoliberalism alive. Staying within the tradition that marks her oeuvre, exaggerated personalities and behaviours blend with the bleak reality of living to enact a kind of meta-realism – the prose runs on undisguised barbs and outbursts that mock the futility of her character’s pursuits, each character an off-colour caricature who also happens to inhabit the murky wells of nuance. By producing these cartoonish personalities who revel in their brassy commentary, Despentes’ work allows itself to operate within its own symbolism. This non-didacticism is social critique in itself. In the world of Vernon Subutex, there is no moralism, only people who react to the systems they have no say in changing and cannot control. After the news of Charles’ money begins to fuel tension within the group, Vernon reflects: ‘it is the hardest thing to learn. That we are the tenants of a situation, not landlords.’

As such, Vernon Subutex subverts the ‘self-awareness’ trend that dominates some sections of literary fiction now, particularly in the realm of ‘autofiction’ (Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be, Kate Zambreno’s Drifts) and novels which use characters to unconvincingly skim populist left credentials (Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times, Sally Rooney’s Normal People). Vernon Subutex is not obsessed with being ‘good’, or of having characters handwring their way through life, yet its intentions are clear; when novels don’t try and preempt the reader, they become windows rather than mirrors. As readers, why do we need to ‘relate’ to (or god forbid, aspire to become) a fictional character? How much hand-holding would one need to experience to subscribe to a novel’s worldview which will then – lo and behold – instruct them to atone for their guilt or be ‘better’? It is what Lauren Oyler, in an essay on this trend, describes as ‘the self-conscious drama of morality’. By pulling ourselves into the whirlpool of moralism through novels, we risk a binaristic understanding of living – the desire to live ‘correctly’ is squared against the anxieties around being seen as such, ironically resulting in an artistic dead-end.

But I (almost) digress. Reading Vernon Subutex makes me think Despentes is acutely aware of this, as she has been since the publication of her first books. Despite having attained popular recognition, her edge had not been blunted; in fact it has sharpened. Here is a trilogy that appears stoic and brash but holds an undercurrent of grief. The introduction of and continual grip of austerity and neoliberal policies under Mitterand, Reagan, Thatcher, Howard, and so on has set off domino effects which have leaked into every cultural sphere. The advent of the internet, which coupled with late-stage capitalism and escalated the gentrification of the mind, has provided the author with more ammunition. The lines in Vernon Subutex recall positions taken in Baise-Moi or King Kong Theory, which continue to show an aggressive and shrewd yet frivolous attitude to cultural mores. However, Despentes’ entrance to what the French describe as the ‘embourgeoisée’ against a capitalist realist backdrop has not only changed her place in French cultural life, but has also traded in more time for contemplation (she has been sober since the age of 35, while many of her earlier books were written on cocaine in a matter of days).

The post-2010s is perhaps a ripe time for Despentes’ repositioning from cult to canon; her work has since been compared to that of Zola and Balzac. But it is ironic to note that she is now a beneficiary of what she has spent her life critiquing. Once described by the French literary world as an ‘enfant terrible’ and ‘lacking literary style’ she has since been celebrated by middlebrow critics such as Lauren Elkin for her ‘transgression’ (as well as others – adjectives such as ‘refreshing’, ‘extraordinary’ and ‘superhuman’ abound) in French and Anglophone literary circles. This includes winning numerous prestigious prizes for Apocalypse Baby, then sitting on the judging panel of the Prix Goncourt from 2016 to 2020. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that she still is trolling the establishment: Vernon Subutex is the first in her bibliography in which the main character is a man, and assumes the voices of men. In an interview, she expressed surprise at the Balzac comparison, and stated

if a woman had been at the centre of the story, they would instead have seen it as the story of a poor woman making bad choices and being a nymphomaniac… so yes, it was more comfortable to work with a male character. I would do it again.

This is reminiscent of a rock musician’s sell-out joke at both their own and the audience’s expense: here you go, motherfuckers. After all, this is a paradox she had already experienced while working as a sex worker earlier in life: in King Kong Theory, she writes:

The promotional part of my job as a celebrity author has always struck me as very similar to the act of prostitution. Except that when you say “I’m a whore,” all the do-gooders flock to your side, whereas when you say “I’m on TV,” all those envious turn against you. But the feeling of no longer quite belonging to yourself, of selling something intimate, of displaying that which is private, is exactly the same.

That said, Vernon Subutex is also about what happens to subcultural types – our garden-variety ‘weirdos’, ‘punks’ and ‘freaks’ – as we age, particularly without safety nets in a rapidly gentrifying world that revolves around power and capital. For Despentes’ characters, who came of age in the 80s and 90s, the exacerbation of contemporary neoliberalism is make or break: do or die, be a ‘lifer’, kill yourself, live on the streets, or ‘mellow out’ (i.e. assimilate to the trappings of ‘adulthood’ in exchange for a better chance at survival). It is the consequence of living a subcultural life that is simultaneously freeing, but which implicates you within its codes: ‘this saved my life’ but also, at what cost?

The trilogy is a vehement characterisation of disenfranchised life, a passionate display of the ways powerlessness leads people to annihilate one other. Regardless of skin colour or gender, the outsize antiheroes of Vernon Subutex are self-righteous and fearful, ready to judge and distrust each other at the slightest disruption. Despite the sense of belonging and liberation they gain from their brief exodus from mainstream society, old habits die hard: when the Hyena learns that Dopalet has managed to track down Céleste (via a series of slip-ups in the group, when her whereabouts was meant to be kept hidden) to exact his vengeance, she considers:

…this is why Vernon left. The conditions for entropy were all present. Discord is a plant that takes time to blossom, but the seeds had been there, just waiting to germinate. Their instincts were wrong. They should have talked to each other.

The mind-numbing business of survival in a capitalist reality is habitually a game of tightrope, be it via assimilation, opportunism, grifting or living outside the law. In this extreme neoliberal critique, anyone can be lured by the promise of comfortable mores – Despentes’ prose draws its power by making what is obvious to her plain to us.

Near the end of 3, a tragedy akin to the 2015 Bataclan theatre massacre occurs. Vernon finds himself destitute again and is found sleeping on the floor of a subway station by an ex-lover, Marcia, who takes him in. She is the one who tells him that Dopalet and Max have cashed in: there is a popular TV show (complete with manga series, an autobiography about Alex and the posthumous publication of Olga’s speeches at the Nuit Debout protests) about his life and social circle (‘everything about Subutex is big business’). Vernon, in response, ‘feels no anger at this. It is of no interest. Factories churn out grenades, Dopalet churns out history.’ This could be a reference to the adaptation of 1 into a TV series by French premium television broadcaster CANAL+; Despentes has declared that she ‘hated the script and the way they worked on it. But I was happy to sell the rights.’

As it has throughout the Vernon Subutex books, and by extension Despentes’ turn from controversial 90s figure to middlebrow edgelord darling and involuntary seer, the hypocrisy of neoliberalism reveals itself yet again: as soon as something becomes a cultural product, what happens next then is dictated by the free market – or in Patrice’s words, ‘nothing can resist gentrification’. Like punk, like rock n’ roll, like Marxism and anti-racism and ‘intersectionality’ and everything else, once it appears in the public realm it is ready to be devoured by the wolves, or as Baudrillard once wrote, they become ‘a copy without an original’.

The final chapter marks an abrupt shift into speculative fiction, narrated after Vernon’s (uneventful) death twenty-odd years later. It is a kind of new world order: the world consists of ‘the Great Territories’ made up of ‘the three monotheistic megalopolises, the post-Marxist continent and the indigenous continent of America’. Music and energy consumption have been banned and a sect emerges from Vernon’s legacy, which has – in secret – continued to rely on older technology such as paper and vinyl to function and organise the (now-underground-again) raves (‘It was precisely their archaism that made it possible for them to survive’). Like the commune, it is a temporary utopia and a defiant denial of the status quo, anchored by the spectre of history. And this is the mark of Despentes: the cycles of revolution are always grinding against the present system, hope is a feeling that we can continue generating, but mostly we can only look back and laugh.

Published April 22, 2021
Part of Emerging Critics 2020: Essays by the 2020 CA-SRB Emerging Critics cohort: Keyvan Allahyari, Bryan Andy, Katie Dobbs, Cher Tan and Prithvi Varatharajan. Our Emerging Critics Fellowship Program is generously funded by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. All Emerging Critics 2020 essays →
Cher Tan

Cher Tan is an essayist and critic in Birraranga/Melbourne, via Kaurna Yerta/Adelaide and Singapore....

Essays by Cher Tan →