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Why Are We Ignoring "Apocalypse Baby"'s Most Important Twist? [BTBA 2016]

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Kate Garber, bookseller at 192 Books. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

I have yet to find a review of Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes (translated by Siân Reynolds) that even mentions what I think is the most important formal element of the novel—without which a whole series of both criticisms and praise that it receives are entirely moot. Of course it deserves both criticism and praise, but I’m pretty sure that those who ignore this key for interpretation are simply reviewing a novel that doesn’t exist.

Fair warning: what follows will include (or will, in fact, focus on) spoilers; also will probably be totally uninteresting if you haven’t read the book, so go read it first.

I’m going to quote the very last page of the novel, which should almost be enough, just saying, hey, why are you guys ignoring this? You’ll recall that this final portion is Lucie’s voice, after everything has happened and she is out in the middle of nowhere, psychologically recovering.

Valentine did what she judged she had to do. Like everyone. I often think of all the things I should have said to her, and I listen to what she might have replied. I have told myself the story so often that in the end I’ve put together what I really know, inventing scenes that I didn’t see, to make the story stand up, the way I imagine it happened. It was when the narrative started to get going that I began to feel better. Gradually, I’ve come back to life. One day, I realized that I’d been awake for several hours and hadn’t yet thought about Valentine. I felt like Noah at the moment the dove comes back with a little olive branch in its beak. The truth I’ll never know. What remains is the story I’m telling myself, in a way that suits me, a story I can be satisfied with.

In these final sentences, we discover that Apocalypse Baby is not just a novel written by Virginie Despentes; it is a novel by the protagonist, Lucie. It is the story she tells herself to help her recover and survive.

Although this really changes everything, so many elements that I could write a whole series of posts, it is mostly important for negating the most common criticism I hear. There’s this frequent gripe that the big twist—where Valentine blows up a building shortly after Lucie and the Hyena bring her back to Paris—comes out of nowhere. It doesn’t appear well-founded enough. Or, . . . the motivation for her extreme actions seemed deeply unconvincing. Or, . . . the enormity of the twist is unsupported and unprepared for — after which statement, this review contrasts Despentes’ “twist” to a comment made by Gillian Flynn that “thriller-writers must be ‘fair’ to their readers, passing on enough information to allow them to solve the puzzle (while also making damn sure that they’re thrown completely off course).” Or, Apocalypse Baby’s bombastic climax is poorly developed and so carries little emotional weight.

I’d be happy to criticize certain elements of the novel, but in no way should it be criticized for this particular success. Remember what this is: It is a post-traumatic personal narrative, a very intentional retelling of events to appease Lucie’s psychological trauma. So, obviously, the explosion-twist had to “come out of nowhere.” Lucie was specifically given the responsibility of finding and returning Valentine; if she didn’t find a way for her story to remind her that there is no way she could have known what Valentine would do, then it would be a different novel. A third-person detective novel would give hints—but this is a first-person work of narrative therapy, in which even the ostensibly third-person sections are just scenes which Lucie has imagined.

Seeing this as essential is not just the sort of theoretical nitpicking that would make for an easy and fun college essay. Ignoring this twist in perspective is basically like ignoring the fact that Bruce Willis was dead the whole time. There’s really no point to the book without it.

Once this is acknowledged, a whole slew of things become much more interesting. The various genres that pop up to shade different scenes. The question of why the protagonist is the most boring character. The nagging feeling that the section about Valentine’s Arab cousins is uncomfortably degrading, possibly racist. Every page takes on a different meaning. It is not a snapshot of various socio-economic groups in contemporary France, as presented from Virginie Despentes’ supposed fictional realism; it is an expression of the way that the post-traumatized brain can view everything differently. This is also supported by Despentes’ preoccupations in her films and writings. If Valentine’s destructive action were the author’s primary focus, we would have seen much more of her psychological build up. But in this novel, her focus is the undeserved but unavoidable feelings of guilt which women can feel, but which they can also survive by the telling of stories. What could be a more reasonable interpretation in light of her other work?

The primary critique I’d make is that I wish Despentes had found some way to make us feel unease about narrative perspective throughout the book. For example, if we were questioning the narrator’s identity in the third-person sections (brilliantly done in Jan Kjærstad’s trilogy, The Seducer, The Conqueror, and The Discoverer), or if there were multiple levels of perspective going on (brilliantly done in Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, which is a diary by the protagonist “edited” by an unknown character whose edits usually contradict the general reader’s opinions about the diary).

Regardless, I recommend printing out the text on the last page of Apocalypse Baby, taping it onto the cover so you don’t forget, and re-reading the novel. It will be a much more satisfying experience.



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