Vernon Subutex is nearly fifty, ‘thin as a rake’ and good-looking if you can get past his furred, yellow teeth. His hair is long and completely white, but mostly still there. It’s Paris, 2014. When we meet him in the first volume of Virginie Despentes’s trilogy, Vernon is about to be kicked out of his apartment after losing his job running a record shop called Revolver – a victim of Napster. For a while he kept up with the choreography of the French welfare system – applying for jobs he was too old ever to be offered, doing a ‘work placement’ at a concert venue – but his benefits were cut when he was reported for unnecessary expenditure: a ticket to see the Stooges. And now Vernon can’t afford anything but 5 kg bags of rice and Rizlas, which he fills with tobacco from butts found on the pavement. He ‘fucks less often than a married man’ and stops seeing his friends in case they invite him for dinner and he has to buy wine. He spends all his time online, avoiding anything ‘about Islam, climate change, fracking, ill-treated orangutans, about Romanians getting chucked off buses’, which really only leaves porn and posting old music videos to Facebook. It’s there that Vernon learns his old friend Alex Bleach has drowned in a hotel bath.
Alex was a rock star, a ‘twisted, reckless, wounded dandy’. Fame had been like ‘stepping into a blazing oven’, until the gas went out in the late 1990s and only drugs could keep him going. When Alex wanted to feel like a normal middle-aged man, he would visit Vernon at his apartment to listen to old records and talk about his experiments with binaural beats, ‘sound waves that were supposed to have a profound impact on the subconscious’. When Vernon got behind on his rent, Alex gave him money. But with Alex dead, Vernon is quickly evicted, which sets going the scampering plot of the first volume: Vernon needs €1000 to get his repossessed belongings out of storage, which he hopes to raise by selling Alex’s last confession, a coked-up monologue self-recorded onto three videotapes.
Despentes wrote Vernon Subutex almost in real time. The first book appeared in France on 7 January 2015 – the day of the Charlie Hebdo shootings – and the third in 2017. The trilogy has been a huge commercial success and has fortified Despentes’s already impossible status: a former cleaner, porn reviewer, music writer and sex worker, she barged into fame in 1994 with Baise-moi, a feral, slangy thriller (and later film) about two women who go on a sex and killing spree after one of them is gang-raped. Since then, Despentes’s novels have continued to draw on a body of ‘low’ culture (porn, reality TV, punk rock) not readily assimilated into the rarefied world of French literary fiction, while her feminism (pro-sex and shaded by an identitarianism often considered a garish American import) is always bubbling over into her women protagonists.
This is why Vernon – a placid, affable character, and a man – is a surprise. And yet Despentes is still preoccupied by the same things: power, sex, pain, anger, poverty, the violence of the state, the violence of men, violence owed to women who have been raped by men. What is new is the scale: more than forty named characters get drawn into Vernon’s orbit and Despentes enters and exits their heads using close third-person narration, sometimes switching focus several times in a single chapter. The plot dilates and dilates to introduce different ‘types’ of contemporary Parisian: a trans e-cigarette salesman, a far-right moped courier, a secondary school teacher who gets fired and starts collecting plastic bags. They all drink too much and use drugs (not in a fun way). They’re either undersexed or adulterous. They’re racist in differing concentrations, but united in their cynicism, which Despentes attributes to socioeconomic circumstance and too much social media. Reviewers like to say that the trilogy ‘holds a mirror up’ to French society and call it things like ‘the Comédie humaine 2.0’. But Balzac wrote about modern Paris as upwardly mobile – the arriviste professionals, jolly artisans and virtuous young upstarts able to accumulate capital unchecked – whereas Despentes is concerned with the opposite: the Gen X losers (and ‘looseuses’) whose horizon of becoming is either narrow or inexistent.
Homelessness forces Vernon to move around the city, staying with friends and acquaintances. Xavier, a friend of Vernon’s since school, is a ‘right-wing cunt’ who has Vernon dog-sit for a few days. Xavier wrote a successful screenplay in the 1980s but has been ‘bunged up’ ever since, supported by his wife, who does marketing for an e-commerce platform. He’s working on a biopic of Drieu la Rochelle (‘now that it’s OK for people to be on the far right’), and at the supermarket he fantasises about kicking a woman in a hijab: ‘It’s psychological warfare: they do it deliberately to make the French male realise how devalued he is.’ Patrice, on the other hand, is more of a left-wing cunt. He lives in a council flat in the suburb of Corbeil and lets Vernon stay because he knows what it’s like to be homeless (though Vernon pretends not to be). Patrice used to play bass in Alex’s band and has a masters degree in English. Now he listens to Duke Ellington and works sorting post on a temporary contract. He wears a silver bangle and wants to see Jean-Luc Mélenchon in power. He persuades himself that the only reason he used to beat up his ex-wife is that he’s always been poor.
The women characters rant too, about Gérard Depardieu’s tax evasion, about the embarrassment of having a boyfriend who’s a culture writer for Libération, about – quelle surprise! – the wearing of the veil. They are also the kinds of woman for whom Despentes has always written, as she explains in a now notorious passage from King Kong Theory, her autobiographical feminist manifesto, published in 2006:
I write from here, from the warehouse of unsold women, the psychos, the skinheads, those who don’t know how to accessorise, those who are scared they stink, those with rotting teeth, those who have no clue, those that guys don’t make things easy for, those who’d fuck anyone who’s prepared to have them, the massive sluts, the scrawny skanks, the dried-up cunts.
Sylvie belongs to the warehouse: she’s a Parisian bitch, an ex-girlfriend of Alex, an ex-heroin addict. These days she only smokes weed which she keeps in a heart-shaped box, though it doesn’t seem to chill her out. She hasn’t eaten since she started the menopause and has never worked, which becomes a problem when her ex-husband stops paying maintenance for their now grown-up son. When she feels jealous of her friends’ happiness, she sleeps with their husbands and spends beyond her means – underwear from Eres, taxis everywhere. Vernon comes to stay and Sylvie dresses up like a Hitchcock heroine in a black dress and chignon. They have sex and it is good – or at least he makes the right moves and she makes the right noises. Then Vernon leaves with three Pléiade editions of Marx from her bookshelf, which he sells without reading.
It turns out that a lot of people would like the tapes of Alex’s last confession. Lydia Bazooka, a freelance music writer, wants the footage for the biography she’s writing of him. She’s a millennial, so Despentes (b. 1969) makes her bulimic and farcically overstimulated by the internet: ‘Every paltry “Like” is a pelvic thrust, every comment an orgasm, and every private message drives her into a frenzy.’ Laurent Dopalet, a film producer and ‘tubby little’ Boomer, wants the tapes for shadier reasons: he and Alex shared an ex-girlfriend, a porn actress named Vodka Satana, whose suicide may have been something more sinister. Dopalet forces women (employees, his wife) to do things for him and to him as a way of reasserting his virility and waning influence in the film industry. (This would perhaps feel trite if Despentes hadn’t written the books before we knew what Weinstein did to women.)
Dopalet hires the Hyena, a lesbian private detective and professional troll (she first appeared in an earlier novel, Apocalypse Baby), to track down Vernon, who has gone underground after having run out of Facebook contacts and sofa beds. He spends his days on the Métro, riding back and forth and occasionally swapping trains to ‘throw people off the scent’. At night he comes to the surface to sleep in an ATM booth. After a few days, he starts to beg and is surprised at how naturally his hand forms the right shape and how little he feels about doing it. ‘It had not been premeditated. He had simply made the gesture … feeling it was not quite real.’
Despentes fills her book with period consumer detail (pastries are bought at Sadaharu Aoki, groceries at Tang Frères, everything under the sun at Tati) and slang (‘les niktamères’, ‘faire du X’, ‘un flingue’). Some of the English substitutes (‘bae’, ‘on fleek’) in Frank Wynne’s translation already feel dated, though I’m not sure anyone has ever snorted ‘gutter glitter’ or smoked a ‘cancer stick’, even in Paris six years ago. But in the end, this doesn’t really matter: the moment is caught whenever a character’s gaze wanders. Then, Despentes’s prose (prolix, frothy, greedy) takes second place to what is seen: a young black guy, ‘his face deformed by the huge cyst on his cheek’, turns a bench at Arts et Métiers station into his home; at the Porte de Pantin, a little boy walks between the cars, tapping on their windows; in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont ‘a man sitting on the first bench is eating a yoghurt and talking to himself. He is laughing at something, his shoes are falling apart and attached to his ankles with string.’
The Buttes-Chaumont, in the 19th arrondissement, isn’t far from where Despentes actually lives in Belleville and it’s where she walks her dog every day. It’s also where much of the second volume is set, once Vernon is discovered by his friends sleeping in an abandoned house, so feverish and unwell he feels like ‘a helium balloon’. Patrice, Lydia and the others offer him a bed, but he takes up residence with a community of homeless people underneath a railway bridge at the Buttes-Chaumont’s eastern end instead:
He could no longer tolerate walls and ceilings, he found it difficult to breathe, every object was hostile, he was plagued by a noxious vibration. The worst thing was having people around him. He could feel their misery, their pain, their fear of not being good enough, of being unmasked, being punished, wasting their lives: he felt it was like pollen, it insinuated its way into every orifice and made it impossible to breathe.
Something changes in Vernon: he adopts a kind of radically unattached, post-work outlook, ‘he genuinely does not give a toss.’ He gets hold of a pair of red Mexican cowboy boots, which make him feel good and cause him to push his hips out when he walks. Suddenly, Vernon is like ‘a radiator’ exuding a warmth that attracts more and more people. His old friends visit him in the park every day and hang out with the homeless, creating ‘a mixture of group therapy session, al fresco coffee shop, beer garden and debating society’, with Vernon DJing on an old iPod and Bluetooth speaker. Everyone is transformed, not least Vernon, who gets his mojo back after a Bolivian ‘indigenous, lesbian-feminist punk’ gives him a transcendental blowjob during which he loses consciousness. When the weather gets colder, they move into the Rosa Bonheur, a bar hidden among the Buttes-Chaumont’s trees, where they ‘eat and chat shit’. In the evenings, Vernon plays a set and everyone goes nuts, as if they’re on drugs, except they aren’t. His tastes are eclectic: The Who, Tom Jones, Prince, Freddie King, Rihanna, P.J. Harvey. ‘The music jolts through their bones, moving their arms, working their hips.’ It’s all very ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’, which is to say it’s also a little clichéd.
The politics of Vernon Subutex are vaguer than in Despentes’s previous writing. Music is obviously important: Vernon’s DJ sets become ‘convergences’ that bring an incongruous group of miserable and immiserated people into ‘a single undulating body’ where differences of class, opinion and identity fall away, and nobody looks at their phone. Despentes also vaguely gestures towards the idea of the park as belonging to no one and so to everyone, one of the only sites in the city not yet privatised, a commons in which people can be their authentic selves. Despentes made this point more forcefully in an interview: ‘A park is a place you can hang out in without paying, where you have to invent what it is you will do there.’ These aren’t new ideas, but their collectivism is wildly different from the brute individualism promoted in King Kong Theory, where sex work is a way of ‘dipping into sex without sentiment’, money is ‘independence’, femininity is ‘bootlicking’, feminism is a ‘question of attitude’ and rape is a ‘civil war’ that men would lose if women were more violent.
There is still rape in Vernon Subutex, as there are women who want to avenge it. The Hyena, having easily tracked down the tapes in Vernon’s abandoned rucksack, decides to double-cross Dopalet and let the Buttes-Chaumont group learn the truth: that Dopalet was involved in the murder of Vodka, having first raped, drugged and pimped her out to his friends for months. Nobody is particularly shocked (‘it’s the human race’), except for Aïcha, Vodka’s daughter, a ‘strong-minded’ student of tax law who also wears a hijab (against the wishes of her secular, academic father). With the help of Céleste, a ballsy young tattoo artist and waitress, Aïcha decides to destroy Dopalet. The pair start out small (coughing during a lecture given by Dopalet’s son at the Palais de Tokyo) and end big (tattooing ‘rapist’ and ‘murderer’ onto Dopalet’s back while he’s bound and gagged). They have much in common with Baise-moi’s protagonists, Manu and Nadine, except that Aïcha and Céleste mess it up: they forget to disguise themselves and underestimate how long it will take to finish the tattoo. They share none of the misandric competence of Manu and Nadine: they are in over their heads, the scene verges on slapstick and the Hyena has to help them go into hiding. ‘She felt sorry for the girls, who were … too inexperienced to know that they would regret this.’ And they do regret it: Aïcha and Céleste are permitted a share of the violence normally directed towards women, only for it to be later restored to Dopalet in a very brutal and disturbing way.
All of which raises the question: has Virginie Despentes gone soft? Perhaps a little. Her most recent journalistic interventions – on Roman Polanski and the sexism of the French film industry; on race and police violence – still seethe and are written with a rhetorical zip that has seen them usefully appropriated at protests. ‘On se lève et on se casse’ (‘we’re getting up and getting out of here’) is papered to walls around Paris, as is ‘Despentes Présidente’. Yet in interviews Despentes insists she has mellowed; anger was starting to destroy even the things she liked.
By the third volume of Vernon Subutex, the characters are similarly cured of their disillusion. Vernon has obtained shamanic status and the group has left Paris to live off the land. They build an encampment in the countryside, hold a big rave, then move on to the next place. Money, alcohol and the internet are forbidden; the group survives off the donations of attendees and they get jumpy when anyone mentions monetisation. It’s a bit like Burning Man without expensive tickets, or like the Zones à défendre – the anti-capitalist settlements set up to obstruct new airports, motorways and power plants in rural France – without the eco-communard principles. In fact, nobody has a clue what happens at the convergences, except that it feels good when Vernon plays. He starts mixing Alex’s binaural alpha waves between songs, which produces mass hallucinogenesis in the crowd. ‘A gentle, luminous confusion that makes you want to take time and keep silent. Epidermises lose their boundaries, everybody becomes every body; it is a boundless intimacy.’
The promise of a very large donation soon breaks up the party. Vernon decides to go it alone: he’s had some sort of ‘male menopause’ that makes him look more handsome than ever – ‘like if you spliced Bruno Mars with Keith Richards’. He tours Belfast, Wolverhampton and Liverpool, but ‘without the others … he’s just some guy with a lot of tunes loaded onto USB drives.’ In Paris, on the night of 13 November 2015, the group spontaneously reunites, eating Nutella crêpes as they watch news of the terror attacks roll in. Xavier posts ‘#StopIslam’ to Facebook but Despentes doesn’t fully reckon with France’s reaction other than to say that people were scared to take the Métro and wore running shoes to concerts. She does however connect the trilogy’s final twist to terrorism, though the motivating ideology is a parodic collage of alt-right, jihadist and profiteering sensibilities.
The closing chapter borrows from speculative fiction to imagine the world at the ‘twilight of the third millennium’. The seas are toxic and the air is no longer breathable but because of ‘the development of kinesics’ and time travel, people are able to open up ‘the great doors’ and go back to a time ‘before the great catastrophes of the early 21st century’ where they can at least listen to music and dance. It registers doom but also Despentes’s bemusement at the trilogy’s real-life reception. In the book’s future, Vernon is worshipped like a Mayan god and the story of his ‘sect’ is made into a TV series, which is then adapted into a manga comic. In real life, there has already been a TV mini-series: nine episodes on Canal+ with Romain Duris playing Vernon. It’s pretty faithful, except there’s considerably more lesbian sex and all the characters are too attractive. A graphic novel has also just appeared, illustrated by the cartoonist Luz, best known for his Charlie Hebdo covers. But it’s on Facebook where life most imitates art: Vernon has his own page to which fans post songs they imagine he might play: Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’, Cypress Hill’s ‘Hits from the Bong’, the White Stripes’ cover of ‘Jolene’, the Beatles’ ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’.