A state of the nation novel for the post-punk generation
Translated by Frank Wynne
Virginie Despentes has lived a bit! You can sense that she’s happy for us to know that from her provocative author photo (right), which is also laden with Gallic irony. Looking her up, she’s been a maid, worked in massage parlours and peep shows, but also worked in a record shop, as a rock journalist and porn film critic. She wrote a shocking, but critically well-received novel – Baise-moi, (Fuck me) which she made into a film which she also directed. This was a rape and revenge thriller in which two girls go on a violent spree against the world they’ve ended up in – it’s apparently challenging in its level of graphic violence and explicit sex.
I was wondering what to expect – but was drawn to the novel through its central setting of the music biz in various disguises. After all, this year has already seen a plethora of titles with vinyl records involved in their settings: from the geeky satire of Magnus Mills’s The Forensic Records Society (reviewed here) and Rachel Joyce’s The Music Shop (read but not reviewed yet). If you weren’t aware of Despentes’s career, upon reading that Vernon Subutex of this book’s title used to run a record shop, you might expect more of the same. How wrong you’d be. This book is about as far from Mills’ drollness and Joyce’s cosiness as you can get!
As the novel opens, Vernon has retreated into his flat, totally broke:
It has been weeks since he last bought coffee. The cigarettes he rolls every morning by gutting the cigarette butts from the night before are so skinny it is like puffing on paper. There is nothing to eat in the cupboards. But he has kept up the payments for his internet connection. […]
His mobile has been cut off and he no longer bothers to pay for top-ups. In the face of disaster, Vernon decides on a course of action: he plays the guy who has not noticed anything unusual. He watched as, in slow motion, things began to collapse, then the collapse accelerated. But Vernon has lost none of his indifference, not of his elegance.
He used to run a record shop – but that failed. He survived at first on odd-jobs, but these were getting harder and harder to come by. He started to gradually sell off his record and memorabilia collection. His old friend Alex Bleach then paid his rent when they cut his unemployment benefit off for wasting it on concert tickets. But Alex went and died. He has virtually nothing left now.
When he’s evicted, he’s reduced to sofa-surfing, dog-sitting, calling up old girlfriends to get a bed for the night. A fifty-year old man caught in a downwards spiral. There is one thing that might save him – the taped interviews with Alex that he still has. Alex had been the charismatic lead in a band that Vernon hung out with, he’d remained wildly successful even after they split up even if he was no great shakes as a songwriter – everyone loved him. When a paranoid film producer hears about the existence of the tapes, a thrillerish sub-plot to locate them joins the story of Vernon’s continued fall from grace.
I’ve not read anything else by Virginie Despentes; having looked her up, her previous works appear very provocative, feminist, and challenging to read, let alone enjoy. Vernon Subutex would appear to be a more considered and mature novel by a writer who is now trying something different. That doesn’t mean that Vernon Subutex lacks intensity or a capacity to make you think, it has both those qualities in quantity.
I am a big fan of Frank Wynne’s translations (especially Pierre Lemaitre’s Verhoeven Trilogy). His style, as with Lemaitre, suits this novel well, from the immediacy of much of the dialogue to the outpourings of various characters’ minds. This intense and powerful novel full of flawed characters was a compelling read and felt very real in its awfulness. You sympathise with Vernon for in spite of the drink and drugs – his ‘beautiful eyes’ reeled me in, and there’s something about him that you feel deserves some kind of redemption. As to whether that happens I cannot say, but the ‘1’ appended to this book’s title will give you a clue – I can’t wait… (10/10)
Source: Review copy.
Virginie Despentes, Vernon Subtex 1 (Maclehose, June 2017) paperback original, 352 pages.