Paris in July is an annual tag hosted by Thyme for Tea which I love doing each year. Here’s my first contribution…
Vernon Subutex 2 by Virginie Despentes
Translated by Frank Wynne
This is a sequel to Vernon Subutex 1, which was a real discovery for me in 2017 – you can read my review here. VS1 was shortlisted for the International Man Booker Prize earlier this year – which surprised many, for it has been a slightly marmite book for lots of readers. I can’t really comment, as it was the only shortlisted book that I’d read – but I really enjoyed it a lot.
Although it is possible to read VS2 without having read VS1 – there is a cast list summarising all the characters that recur and one-liners on their roles in the first novel at the beginning of VS2 – I believe you’d probably want to read VS1 first to get the full impact of the fall of Vernon Subutex and how he reached where he is in VS2.
To summarise VS1 : Vernon Subutex is a former record shop owner, occasional DJ and friend of the late rock star Alex Bleach. When Alex died, Vernon found he couldn’t keep the shop going, or pay his rent (Alex had been helping to keep him afloat). Evicted, Vernon turns to sofa surfing with friends and lovers, but manages to outstay his welcome with all of them, endlng up joining the homeless. Vernon owns one thing of potential value, a set of tapes made by Alex in which he reputedly tells all. Laurent Dopalet, a film producer, is desperate to get his hands on the tapes – Dopalet had been seeing Bleach’s former partner, Vodka Satana, and she died in unsavory circumstances. Dopalet thinks he may be incriminated, and hires a private detective known as the Hyena to find them.
Now to VS2: Vernon is rough sleeping in a derelict house next to some communal gardens. He’s not well, just getting over days of fever:
Painfully, he climbs over the railings separating the communal garden from the property where he has taken to sleeping. He grips the branches and hoists his body up, almost falling flat on his face on the other side. He ends up kneeling on the ground. He wishes he could feel sorry for himself, or disgust. Anything. But no, nothing. Nothing but this absurd calm.
Vernon has fallen lucky in finding the derelict house – it’s better than a park bench. He spends his days in one of Paris’s beautiful parks, the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in NE Paris with Laurent and Olga, other homeless folk. Set on a hill, it has views across to the Sacre Coeur.
Vernon’s friends, however, are beginning to feel guilty about turning him out. They start looking for him, Émilie leading the way – she meets Laurent who is with his friend Charles:
“If you do see Vernon, tell him we’re looking for him, yeah? Tell him Émilie, Xavier, Patrice, Pamela, Lydia…we’re all looking for him. Tell him we’re worried… and that we have stuff to tell him, important stuff…”
The important stuff relates to the tapes of course. We do get to find out what is on them later and what the implications are for those involved, but I won’t say more on that. Once his friends find Vernon though, his life takes a slightly different tack. He declines to move back in with any of them, while accepting showers and food, preferring to live out his existential life in the parc, where Xavier goes to look for him one day:
…finding him, sitting on the grass, leaning back on his elbows, with the laid-back nonchalance of a guy just catching some rays.
This is when it happened, Xavier tells anyone who is willing to listen. […] He had hugged Xavier to him before he left. Xavier could not say how long they had stood, silently pressed against each other. But he would swear that, as he walked home, he felt different. As though a weight had been lifted.
Later Gaëlle, who works at one of the parc’s bars is listening to a colleague prattling on about him, and wonders:
…how does a guy who’s likeable enough but a bit short of change when it comes to charisma turn himself into the messiah of the Buttes-Chaumont? The guy is homeless, stinks of sweat and wears trailer trash boots, but everyone treats him like he’s baby Jesus if he’d skipped the bit with the cross, he’s surrounded by dozens of Magi who bring him gifts every day. Vernon chooses a tree, sits under it, and people come to see him.
I hate to bring levity into a serious story about homelessness, but I couldn’t help equating Vernon’s fall and (I hope) rise with that of Reggie Perrin. I know Despentes is unlikely to have heard of the cult BBC series by David Nobbs and the character immortalised by Leonard Rossiter, but there is a dark side to Reggie Perrin alongside the comedy; at the start of Reggie’s way back from being presumed drowned, he is a tramp for a while. Also at this stage we don’t know whether this the beginning of the road back to health, let alone redemption, a home or even a relationship for Vernon – but there is a third volume, which I must assume will finish Vernon’s story one way or another.
Despentes doesn’t spare us from the misery of the dispossessed, the poor and homeless, the madness and dignity in the face of such an awful life. Her language, in Frank Wynne’s translation, is direct and takes the reader on. Vernon may have been a typical middle-class white guy, a bit of a love-rat, had too much booze and drugs and ended on his uppers, but maybe she chose such a stereotype to show that his descent can happen to anyone. I still felt that Vernon deserves a shot at recovery, and he now has a network of true friends around him to help. As for the story with the tapes, it takes a critical direction in the last third that leaves the path open for an interesting resolution.
Being the middle act in a trilogy (I’m assuming it’ll be a trilogy; the third volume is already published in French), VS2 lacks the pace and downwards trajectory of VS1; it very much carries along on the level, building up all the various characters’ own stories, Vernon sharing the pages with Émilie, Celeste, Xavier and the others, not forgetting the Hyena, who is my favourite, until things start to hot up in later chapters. VS2 bides its time, but sets us up for some interesting closure to come. (8.5/10)
Source: Review copy – thank you.
Virginie Despentes, Vernon Subutex 2 (Maclehose, July 2018) paperback original, 336 pages.
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