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“Vernon Subutex 1” by Virginie Despentes [Why This Book Should Win]

Check in daily for new Why This Book Should Win posts covering all thirty-five titles longlisted for the 2020 Best Translated Book Awards

Dorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College and blogs about books at www.eigermonchjungfrau.blog. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, Open Letters Monthly, and Words without Borders, among other places.

Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Frank Wynne (FSG)

Virginie Despentes’ latest work is trilogy about a man in midlife, who falls victim to the precarity of neoliberalism and finds himself pushed to the margins of society. Vernon Subutex I should win the BTBA because of its prescient depiction of what, as many of us are discovering now, if we hadn’t already, is an all-too pressing scenario.

Vernon—“the guy with the name like an orthopaedic mattress, Subutex,” as one character 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 shop. On the first page of the book, 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 his even noticing it—Vernon is not shrewd; one reviewer 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. But Alex never much liked being a star, though he had 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 recompense for having this bolt-hole, Alex would pay Vernon’s rent.

But now Alex has died, and Vernon immediately wonders where the rent money’s going to come from. Yet like the characters of so many nineteenthcentury 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 book 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 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, 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.)

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. Sometimes the various gradations of male douchebaggery and assholery seems to be Despentes’s 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. 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). 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). 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 colors 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. Vernon Subutex is a great novel of the failures of neo-liberalism. One of my favorite 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. After all, contradiction is what capitalism forces us to live out. Note how, in Patrice’s fulminations against the people he serves, he’s been infected by the neoliberal language of efficiency (“make things move faster”).

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

This 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. 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.”

For the most part 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 neoliberalism? 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 book seems 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 book’s most interesting social criticism concerns the idea of friendship. Although the book is peopled by dozens of characters, all of whom are connected in some way, hardly any of them are married. Nor is there much sex. 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.

Despentes is not a stylish writer; her sentences are not particularly interesting. In its rapid cutting between different characters, Subutex seems written for tv. But I wouldn’t say it’s badly written or structured. It has a hurried, helter-skelter charm, which translator Frank Wynne evokes with commas rather than semi-colons, dashes, periods, or other more formal methods of linking and separating clauses. Vernon Subutex is 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.” Life under capitalism has made us like “the battered wives you see on documentaries: we are so gripped with terror, we have forgotten the basic rules of survival.”

Thinking about the books’ tendencies toward pronouncements, 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, 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. 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?

Can’t wait to see how Despentes answers these questions. Because the remaining two volumes are forthcoming in the US this year and next we might well be considering her for the BTBA for some time to come.



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