“Good at Wrecking Things”: Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex

Virginie Despentes is a novelist, filmmaker, rock journalist, and former sex worker. She is best known for her book Baise-moi (1983; translated as Rape Me), a revenge fantasy inspired by the rape and abuse she suffered as a young woman. And if her awesome author photo is anything to go by, she’s still rocking that punk sensibility.

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As a long-standing square, terrified of drugs and able to appreciate punk only as an idea (so noisy!), I’d never even considered reading Despentes. But then I started hearing about this trilogy she’d written about a man in midlife, who falls victim to the precarity of neo-liberalism and finds himself pushed to the margins of society. But even after reading an enticing review in the TLS, I still figured these were books I was more likely to read about than read myself. But then Frances and Eric raved about them; Eric even offered to pass along his copies. The die was cast.

So it was that I recently spent a week or so happily immersed in the first two volumes of the Vernon Subutex trilogy. (Volume 3 hasn’t yet appeared in English.) Vernon—“the guy with the name like an orthopaedic mattress, Subutex,” as the grown daughter of one of his former customers acidly but aptly puts it—ran a record store named Revolver for twenty five years. But then came downloading, and rising rents, and he had to close. For a few years he eked out a living selling off the rest of his stock on Ebay. But on the first page of the first volume, he’s about to be evicted, the last of his remaining possessions taken as collateral. He’s hardly eaten in days, even quit buying coffee and cigarettes. He’s 49 years old and without any plan for what comes next. Without even his noticing it—Vernon is not shrewd; in that TLS review, Chris Kraus calls him an “affable loser,” which is near enough I guess, though it makes him seem sweeter and more hapless than he is—his friends have left him behind: moved away, started families, schemed desperately to cling to economic stability (unless of course they married into money). Or they’ve left him permanently: cancer, car accident, overdoses, the losses mount up.

Of those deaths, the most consequential is Alexandre Bleach’s. Alex, a mixed-race kid who found his way into Revolver one day and learned about bands like Stiff Little Fingers and Bad Brains under Vernon’s tutelage, made it big. (Along the way he passed through a punk phase: his former bandmates are some of the first people Vernon turns to once he finds himself on the streets.) But Alex never much liked being a star, though he has enough self-knowledge to know how irritating it is to complain when you get everything you’re supposed to want. Alex would periodically hole up in Vernon’s apartment, listening to music, getting high, and hiding from the responsibilities of fame; as a recompense for having this bolt-hole, Alex would pay Vernon’s rent.

But now Alex is dead, and Vernon immediately wonders where the rent money’s going to come from. Yet like the characters of so many 19th-century novels—subject matter aside, Vernon Subutex is quite old-fashioned (and I don’t mean that as a slight)—Alex is never so alive as when he’s died. One of his last acts was to record a manifesto/testament, a combination of stoned philosophizing and vituperative score-settling. Vernon, predictably, slept through the whole thing, but the tapes are some of the only things he takes with him onto the streets because he’s convinced he’ll be able to sell them.

The series is plotty and I’ll try not to go into too much detail and reveal too many secrets, other than to say that the tapes, which Vernon deposits with a friend from whom they are promptly stolen, link the trilogy’s large set of characters. For the bombshell hidden in all that rambling is that Alex has told the truth about the death of his former girlfriend, a porn star named Vodka Satana (yeah, it doesn’t work for me either), at the hands of a movie mogul named Laurent Dopalet (part Harvey Weinstein, part Dominique Strauss-Kahn). Dopalet hires a woman known as the Hyena to find the tapes, but she joins forces with another former porn star and friend of Vodka Satana’s to forge an alliance with Vernon’s friends. (The Hyena’s job is to boost and attack directors, actresses, and other media personalities, “to plaster the internet with love notes, photos, passionate declarations and real-life accounts about how lovely and approachable they are,” or, conversely, “to stop some young starlet from making it too quickly.” Fascinating stuff, and I wish Despentes had done more with it.)

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Even more than plot, the Vernon Subutex series cares about character. This is both good and bad. Vernon’s friends, in particular, are a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they are the focus of much of the book’s energy and social critique. For example, there’s Xavier Fardin, a screenwriter with only one hit to his name who has been living for years off his wife’s family money and his peculiar fame as an avowed conservative in the leftist Parisian art world, basically a shit but a fairly decent one, especially in his love for an old and practically hairless poodle, not to mention his willingness to stand up to alt-right thugs (he’s beaten badly defending Vernon and another homeless person). Even more interesting is Patrice, a punk musician who cut ties with the industry and is now a mailman. Patrice lives alone because of his inability to stop himself from physically and emotionally abusing his ex-wife and girlfriends. (Despentes writes great male characters—the various gradations of male douchebaggery and assholery seems to be her real subject.)

On the other, the friends are a problem, because they complicate what’s really great about the books: their depiction of Vernon’s journey to homelessness. Despentes shows how easy it is to drift to the margins of society, how quickly one can be reduced to something less than human. Without being clumsy or preachy, Despentes shows a world many of her readers don’t know. Along with Vernon, we learn the rules and strategies of begging (which are the best pitches—outside bakeries, because people pay cash and leave with change—what is the etiquette about finding a new one, when to look at people’s feet and when in their faces). We experience with him the constraints of public space (realizing that the world is made up of park benches with bars down the middle of them and shop fronts with spikes, designed to stop people sleeping and sitting). We also see the camaraderie, even freedom that prevails among the homeless (one woman has a theory about how much the system needs people like her; without her example, she avers, most people wouldn’t keep going to work). But we also see how violent and dangerous it is to be on the streets: you are tired, cold, sick most of the time; your body changes on you, becomes unrecognizable, from your smell to your painful uncut toenails, not to mention the ineradicable grime that colours your skin.

Like Zola in his day, Despentes critiques the depredations of a gilded age. Unlike Zola, however, she isn’t also fascinated by the extravagance and excesses of the one percent. The Vernon Subutex books are great novels of the failures of neo-liberalism. One of my favourite sections concerns Patrice’s reflections on what he’s learned being a postman:

It’s hard fucking work. He is sorry he has always been so down on postmen. First off, it’s hard not to steal stuff. But the main problem is all the walking. And it’s an obstacle course, working out where people mount their letter boxes … If it were left to him, he would have regulations in place like a shot—the fuckers already get their mail delivered for free, the least they can do is have standard-size letter boxes situated in the same places. Make things move faster. People take public services for granted—they’ve been spoiled. People need to make sure they have the letter-box in the right place, that there are no vicious dogs barring the way, they need to realize how lucky they are to have a postman come by every morning.

Which leads him into a screed against deregulation:

The old-timers are devastated to see what the postal service has come to. It’s like everything else. They’re witnessing the systematic dismantling of everything that worked, and to top it all they get told how a mail distribution system should work by wankers straight out of business school who have never seen a sorting office in their lives. Nothing is ever fast enough for them. The skeleton staff is too expensive. Tearing down a system that already works is quicker. And they’re happy with the results: they are good at wrecking things, these bastards.

(Substitute higher education for the mail distribution system and this works just as well—for lots of other things too, no doubt, public utilities, health care, anything important that isn’t amenable to profit.) Patrice, as I’ve noted, is no saint. He’s quite repulsive, actually—but he’s also appealing. Despentes forces us to sit with that contradiction. We can even see in his own fulminations against the people he serves that he’s been infected by the neo-liberal language of efficiency (“make things move faster”).

As these passages suggest, the Subutex books, despite the presence of alt-right bullies, porn stars, popular music and movies, and plenty of drugs and alcohol, owe more to Honoré de Balzac than to J. G. Ballard. But there is some Ballard in these books. Nothing like the fascinating sexual and consumer excesses of Crash, but moments when the books’ social critique is decoupled from realism and, as in Ballard, connected to something more fantastic and oneiric.

This tendency is most apparent when Vernon becomes something like a shaman, the still, doped-out center of a network of people who reconnect through his tribulations—and his way with a playlist. Vernon’s friends track him down, and offer him money, couches to crash on, help of various kinds: he refuses all offers and finds a place for himself in an encampment on a disused railway line near the Buttes Chaumont. (Readers who know Paris better than I do will probably get even more from this book.) Vernon no longer cares about rejoining society. He only cares for music. He becomes a DJ at regular events, raves of a sort, first at a bar and then in abandoned industrial sites across France, where hundreds of people come to lose themselves in his sets.

Vernon hasn’t been on the streets for long before he starts experiencing fevered visions: sometimes he feels himself to be growing wings, soaring through the air. Sometimes he feels himself, “a hobo perched on a hill, in Paris,” to be an amalgam of all those who suffer from ordinary life, from “the drug mule pissing myself in fear ten metres from customs” to “the nurse made deaf by the cries of the patients and by dint of powerlessness” to “the cow in the abattoir.”

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I don’t know what to make of this. At least character agrees with me: “how does a guy who’s likable 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.”

For the most part, though, the book asks us to take Vernon’s reincarnation as a guru at face value. But how is all this shamanistic stuff supposed to be a critique of neo-liberalism? Is Despentes arguing for the power of fantasy to counter alienation and inequality? Or is she depicting nothing more than ineffective resistance to those states? At times the books seem to manifest the inchoate rage of the gilet jaunes, but then the belief in the power of music and dance mitigates that sense of injustice. In the end, Vernon Subutex seems to hold fast to the radical potential of the 1960s and 70s, even as it is alive to the irony that its middle-aged characters, through the world they built, have done so much to undermine these ways of being.

Maybe the books’ most interesting social criticism concerns the idea of friendship. Although the books are peopled by dozens of characters (volume 2 even starts with a list), all of whom are connected in some way, they contain almost no marriages. Nor are there many sexual relationships (even though the male characters are always moaning about how women won’t sleep with them anymore, that is, when they’re not commenting on their lack of sex drive: “his libido has long since been running on empty”). If these books have utopian tendencies, they’re quite chaste. Or quite pornographic—in the sense that sex has retreated to a realm of private, managed fantasy. Which makes the insistence on friendship all the more striking.

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I’ve quoted a few bits of the books already. Enough for you to know that the individual sentences are not particularly interesting. Despentes is not a stylish writer. In its rapid cutting between different characters it seems written for tv (and apparently a series is coming, maybe already out in France). But I wouldn’t say these are badly written or structured books. They have a hurried, helter-skelter charm, which their translator Frank Wynne (presumably following the original, I’m not sure) evokes with commas rather than semi-colons, dashes, periods, or other more formal methods of linking and separating clauses. The books are easy to read and soothing to plunge into, even when the subject matter is enraging or disquieting.

At times, Despentes dabbles in aphorism. (She is French, after all.) “Past the age of forty, everyone is like a bombed-out city.” “He recognizes the fervent foolishness of people who feel the need to put the same expressions in every sentence.” “But heredity is a patient spider” (this from a man horrified to find himself becoming like the father he hated).

Sometimes aphorism connects with social critique. Alex compares life under capitalism to “the battered wives you see on documentaries: we are so gripped with terror, we have forgotten the basic rules of survival.” A woman who played in the band with Patrice and Xavier reflects on how poorly they’ve aged: “Women survive prison better than men because, throughout history, they have been accustomed to being locked up spied on hobbled punished and deprived of their freedom. Not that it’s in their blood, but it’s part of their heritage. The same thing can be said about social success: women don’t suffer as much when they don’t succeed.”

Thinking about the books’ tendencies toward pronouncements (“women don’t suffer as much when they don’t succeed”), I was reminded of a much earlier French text about how to live, one with a similarly naïve hero: Voltaire’s Candide. Admittedly, I haven’t read it in 30 years, and that was in high school French class, so I probably didn’t understand it even then, but the way Despentes depicts the raves organized by Vernon and his friends, I couldn’t help but think of Pangloss’s insistence that we cultivate our own gardens.

Of course, Voltaire ironizes the imperative as much as he avows it. And maybe Despentes is similarly ambivalent. Nothing stuck with me in these books as much as  the last line in volume 2. We’re at one of the parties, Vernon is spinning his tunes (Bootsy Collins, a favourite). He’s watching the dancers (“shapes peel away and form fleeting groups”); he’s thinking about those who aren’t there, especially Alex (“he makes contact with those who are absent”), it’s all very mystical (“whorls of moonlight open up between people”). And then this: “He is making them all dance.” On the one hand, this is a mere description, of something nice no less. But on the other, it’s a more sinister observation, even a prophecy. Does Vernon have a plan we don’t know about? Is there more to him than affable helplessness? Are the love, drugs, and music that seem to resist neoliberalism’s cruel optimism in fact nefarious?

I trust all will be revealed in volume 3.

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3 thoughts on ““Good at Wrecking Things”: Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex

  1. Ha. By coincidence, I’m in the middle of Bye, Bye Blondie, a Despentes novel which preceded the Subutex trilogy. I’m finding it a filthy treasure trove of French slang. Despentes is everywhere in France, un phénomène.

    The disused railway line is almost certainly La Petite Ceinture, which seems to alternate wild garden and crowded homeless encampment, one of the real curiosities of Paris given that it runs around most of the city within the city limits and seems all but ignored by city government and planners, as though it didn’t exist. It’s almost shocking to stumble across it.

    • Interesting and helpful, Scott. Thanks. Someone like you would get so much more out of Despentes’s use of Paris. It seems to me she is very specific about location; I can only sense the general significance of these places, but I’m sure they connote in particular ways. Vernon doesn’t feel to me filthy, exactly. I wonder if it reads that way more in French.

  2. Pingback: March 2019 in Review | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

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