Vernon Subutex 1-3 by Virginie Despentes
Translated by Frank Wynne
It was back in 2017 that Vernon Subutex first came to us in translation, in volume 1 of a planned trilogy following the (slightly Reggie Perrinesque) fall and rise of Vernon. The first book was published in France in 2015. I highly recommend these books which are a real ‘State of the Nation’ set of novels. I’ve tried to keep my summaries and review general so as not to give away too much. This is, however, a series you can’t jump into – start at the beginning – I hope you get hooked as I did.
In the first exciting volume of the trilogy, Vernon Subutex 1, (reviewed here), we meet the titular protagonist – record shop owner and friend of now dead rock star Alex Bleach who had helped him out financially. After Alex’s death, Vernon lost his shop and lodgings and ended up sofa-surfing through an increasingly irritated band of friends. Vernon still has one thing of value, a set of tapes made by Alex that reputedly accuse producer Laurent Dopalet of murdering Vodka Satana, a former fiancée of Alex’s. Dopalet will do anything to get his hands on the tapes, and hires ‘The Hyena’ to retrieve them. The novel combined a cast of colourful and flawed characters who represent the state of the nation/Paris (note, the book was written before the Charlie Hebdo massacre) with the central mystery over the tapes. It was full of direct dialogue, but also lots of outpourings of the minds of the characters. Despentes alternates the action with character portraits – a feature of the whole trilogy. In Vernon, Despentes created a fascinating hero/anti-hero and I couldn’t wait for the next book.
VS1 went onto be shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Award.
A year later came Vernon Subutex 2 (reviewed here); again this was published in 2015 in France. Vernon’s fall continues, he’s now homeless and living on the streets, sleeping in derelict houses. He spends his days in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, where he communes with other homeless folk. His friends, feeling rather guilty at having turfed him out before, visit him there and sort of look after him. Vernon is perfectly calm and happy to accept their friendship and the odd shower without moving back in with any of them. He gradually comes to be regarded as a bit of a guru – the ‘Messiah of the Buttes-Chaumont’! We also find out what happened to the tapes and Dopalet which takes the action off in an unexpected direction.
And finally, we reach Vernon Subutex 3, which was published in France in 2017 – we had to wait until this June 2020 for the English translation to be published. Being written after the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan massacres in 2015 and 2016, the ‘State of the Nation’ that Despentes portrays really reflects the more troubled times.
Vernon is no longer living in Paris. He and his group of friends/disciples move around from location to location in the French countryside, where they hold regular invitation only raves – or ‘convergences’ as they’re known. Vernon’s fame as the DJ ‘turntablist’ is spreading far and wide, but they keep the convergences discrete. Their camps are internet-free, which started with The Hyena’s paranoia at them being found, she defected from Dopalet’s employ in VS2 and joined Vernon’s band. Poor Vernon though, has an abscess on a tooth and has to return by train to Paris to see a dentist, the city is overwhelming and he’s glad that Mariana has come with him.
No-one dawdles, as they do at the camp. This is a grown-up city – no-one speaks to strangers, or if they do, it is only to shout. He is bombarded by images, too many posters, too many junk messages. But it is only when they reach the platform that he identifies what it is that has been bothering him since their arrival. The smell. Paris is an olfactive cesspit – a mixture of rot of air rancid with body odours of perfumes of metallic machine smells of filth and chemicals. Vernon realises he is holding his breath.
While in Paris, Vernon is shocked to find that his friend Charles, whom we met in VS2, has died. It turns out that Charles had had a million Euros lottery win, and left the money to his partner Véro with a request to give half to Vernon’s group. Charles was Vernon’s best friend, however Véro was not a fan. Having told Vernon of Charles’ request, she begins to regret that, and Vernon will have to be at his most persuasive to get her to give them the money. Once Vernon tells the others about the potential windfall on his return from Paris, everyone in the group will have different ideas of what to spend it on. As is so often the case, the promise of money is destabilising and becomes the thing that threatens to split the group up. There is still the next convergence to plan though…
With things beginning to spiral out of control and the country still reeling from the atrocities in the news, by introducing one new character Max, Alex Bleach’s first manager, Despentes begins to bring things together into a daring final act, and an even more daring coda.
However, the book takes its time to reach the climax. As she did in the previous volumes, Despentes alternates between following the main group and giving us the individual thoughts of various characters. While this really does allow us to see into everyone’s state of mind it does slow down the main plot. You need to be prepared to read shocking stuff though – Despentes’ characters express strong views, whether just thought or actually voiced, there is plenty of violent, racist thoughts in some characters’ minds. One line that struck me was thought was Stéphanie, a friend of Marie-Ange whose husband Xavier was part of Vernon’s group. Stéphanie’s teenaged son has just discovered wanking, and she and her friends are discussing motherhood, Pénélope is desperate to get pregnant. Stéphanie warns that it is the death of relationships, thinking:
“Motherhood is like FGM – women feel obliged to make sure everyone else does it.”
Despentes litters her text with pungent one-liners like that.
There is nothing like this trilogy to capture the Zeitgeist of recent years, Despentes (and Frank Wynne’s wonderful translation) captures the despair and frustration, the polarisation and depression, and makes the reader feel part of it. Yet amongst all this negativity, there is friendship and some cause for optimism. The one thing missing for me was more exploration of the work of Alex Bleach, but he was dead at the start and Despentes rarely looks back for more than fleeting glimpses of the past, the books live almost wholly in the present. Personally, I wasn’t sure about the coda, which is creatively daring – although I appreciated what Despentes is trying to do in it – I won’t say more, I’ll leave that for you should you read these books.
Despentes can make you laugh, cry and challenge your own thoughts at the same time.
This trilogy was such a rewarding read, so ‘now’. I loved it!
See also what Tony of Tony’s Reading List thought of it here.
Source: Review copy – Thank you! Virginie Despentes, Vernon Subutex 3 (Maclehose, 2020, transl. Frank Wynne) paperback original, 368 pages.