Midway through the last book of Vernon Subutex, Virginie Despentes’s trilogy of Hollande-era Paris, a character at rest lying on her belly is reading “a Zadie Smith novel.” In the course of three volumes that all have an abundance of proper nouns, this is almost the first indicating a work of literature; literature is almost the only facet of culture referred to in such a desultory way. Pop music, much of it Anglophone, is referred to by contrast dozens of times, and the hyper-specificity of these references—to Mary J. Blige, Snoop Dogg, the Cure, the Bee Gees, Bowie—gives them an effect like that of a soundtrack. A similarly loving detailing is applied in rendering the period’s defining bars (Rosa Bonheur, in Buttes Chaumont Park) and food outlets (“McDo”). Social media are also, in their own way, constitutive, responsible for plot twists like a manhunt arranged by hashtag.
Despentes, who is French, is an occasional filmmaker, and she has demonstrated, for a literary author, a surprising agnosticism regarding that choice of medium, as if the difference between books and film or TV were a question not of kind but of degree. She told a public-radio host she’d intended for Vernon Subutex—a trilogy of some 1,240 pages—to be a single, short book. But that’s the thing about writing, she said, contrasting it to movies: “You’re not limited by any budget. If you decide all of a sudden to go from 50 pages to 1,500, it’s a question of time and work.”
The extent of interface between Despentes’s creations and the social reality surrounding them has become, lately, something like a measure of her power. (“We are embarrassed of our strengths,” she says deploringly of women in 2006’s King Kong Theory, a book of essays.) This is reflected by the biography used in American editions of Vernon Subutex—the second volume came out in the US in July, translated by Frank Wynne—which features as a major accomplishment, as her own accomplishment, the censoring in France of the author’s film Baise-Moi, based on her novel and made in partnership with “the porn star” Coralie Trinh Thi. Vernon Subutex I came out in January 2015, by coincidence on the same day as the shooting at the Charlie Hebdo offices; Vernon Subutex II followed it closely that June; Vernon Subutex III was published in May 2017, a lag allowing for the densest incorporation, in that volume, of current events: the attack on the Bataclan nightclub, the labor movement Nuit Debout, a reaction in Paris to the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. The book resembles social media in that current events like these keep time. Characters take part in Nuit Debout, which involved the occupation of a central square in Paris, and emphasis is placed on their as well as Paris’s capacities for change, with much discussion of transitioning, tattooing, aging, exposure to the elements, addiction, and losing and gaining weight.
Despentes was born in 1969 in Nancy—a city described in her novel Bye Bye Blondie as “morbid and icy,” “a morgue”—and belonged to the first generation of Frenchwomen who could open a bank account without a father or a husband to cosign, as she notes in King Kong Theory. She began taking birth control at 14, left home at 17, and would later refer to the period following as the time before she “became Virginie Despentes.” Selling out—“the promotional part of my job as a publicized author”—reminds her, she writes, of sex work. That was a job she appreciated for many reasons, as she writes in King Kong Theory; her clients’ vulnerability gave her an understanding of men in their humanity, for one. If fame and fortune seem from her recent work to have been similarly interesting, opening to her frontiers of human experience, they also have their drawbacks: jealous reactions to her appearing on TV and, in certain settings, an “infinitely more confused sexuality.” A meta-fictional turn in her body of work correlates to this worldly success.
That periodization—“became Virginie Despentes”—is also literal: “Despentes” is a name she gave herself, after the Lyon neighborhood where, in a borrowed apartment, she had lived. This etymology corresponds to a truism of biography on which Despentes insists—that she comes from where she comes from and, just as much as she is self-created, her personal history is determining. Social determinism is just another piety to her. And yet the appellation has the ring of the inevitable. She writes of the rape she suffered hitchhiking as an incident that “constitutes” as well as it “disfigures” her. “Novels, stories, songs, movies. I always think I’ll be able one day to be done with it,” she says of her rape in King Kong Theory, a book she begins by declaring her project to write for and from the position of the ugly, the unwanted.
Vernon Subutex follows an eponymous Parisian and his circle of acquaintances. Vernon, owner and operator of a record shop that has had to close, is evicted in the course of the opening chapter. What ensues is something like the opposite of a plot out of Balzac in which events are precipitated by a protagonist’s ambition. Vernon, who is homeless, needs a place to crash.
As he trundles along from harbor to harbor, dragging the story after him, he encounters a cast of dozens: a film professor of Algerian descent; a trans, Brazilian aesthetician; a failed screenwriter who is French, racist, and an anti-Semite; a union man who’s just as bitter; a stockbroker; a bartender; a world-weary adult film star; and a mercenary special operative and lesbian of many conquests known as the Hyena. Some of these people know Vernon from the record shop; its ability to bring them together is duly mourned. The others cross his path in search of one of the belongings left to Vernon, a set of confessional tapes made by Vernon’s friend the pop star Alex Bleach, since deceased. A film producer is also after these recordings, which implicate him along with unnamed politicians in sex trafficking and rape. Despite his machinations the other characters, marveling at the improbability of their convergence, make a getaway to the countryside.
For books with so much plot, this trilogy is amazingly interior. It is a string of torrential confessionals in which each character gets at least one chapter. They reflect, at length, on their own social situations, which provides many of them with just cause for resentment. Meanwhile Bleach considers the freedom of real rebellion in youth to be, despite a lifetime of aftereffects on the body, its own consolation, a kind of “aristocracy”; Aïcha, the professor’s daughter, devotes herself to Islam to her secular father’s consternation, finding the religion “sweetens her and gives her structure”; high-strung Frenchwoman Sylvie allows herself the worry that her adolescent son “lacks a gift for happiness.”
In its psychological insight, Vernon Subutex resembles Despentes’s earlier novels—like Bye Bye Blondie, about a woman who as a teenager was incarcerated in a mental hospital against her will as Despentes was; Pretty Things, about twin sisters, one of whom impersonates the other after her suicide; or Baise-Moi, about two women thrown together in a brilliant friendship who undertake a killing spree—and the main mechanism of innovation over these prior novels is multiplication. There are more than two dozen protagonists. The gaps between them are charged; your attention is held by the shifts in perspective. The frequency of cultural reference is highest in Vernon Subutex, another vector of its extremity. This accretion of proper nouns and place-specific slang resembles the “world-building” of science fiction.
Because of the centrality of these features to Vernon Subutex—detail and verisimilitude, the contemporary quality of the language—insufficiencies of Wynne’s translation are worth mentioning. In French, the insouciance of argot is crucial to its texture. This slang, with its array of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, is efficient in cutting the emotion of the monologues. One difficulty, then, with this translation—“He smoked skunk from Holland so potent it gave an instant headache”—is that it gives rise to an elegiac mood where the accomplishment of Despentes’s prose is that it doesn’t.
Vernon Subutex III, which comes out in the United States in May, was a best seller in France in the week of its release. Since then, Despentes, whose first novel was thought unpublishable, has turned to polemic for a national audience. Her invective against Roman Polanski, an accused rapist, in the daily Libération—on the occasion earlier this year of Adèle Haenel’s desertion of the César Awards when Polanski was revealed to be a recipient—leveled its charge against the system that anointed him, grouping them together: “Your love of the strong is morbid” (Wynne’s translation). Despentes later composed a letter to be read over the radio in support of Justice Pour Adama, a French analogue of Black Lives Matter, addressed “to my white friends who don’t get the problem” (other translations have been mine).
A third, less publicized intervention in French politics was published in February alongside contributions by luminaries such as Bruno Latour in the otherwise modest volume Éloge des mauvaises herbes: Ce que nous devons à la ZAD, a compendium of reflections on an encampment, dubbed a ZAD (zone à défendre), that for 10 years was kept up by activists to prevent the building of an airport outside Nantes. Despentes’s essay—the title translates as “For the Peasants of Tomorrow”—deals with the contributions these environmentalists made, through the force of their commitment to stay in place, to the national imaginary. She notes that she has never been there. But the “whole edifice” of society as it is rests, Despentes writes, on an overwhelming message that “there is no alternative.” The ZAD, a self-managed community where, according to its members, police for years did not intervene, offered a proof to the contrary, “a grain of sand of counter-propaganda.” This is also what Despentes has found to do with her power. Vernon Subutex is written as if to act not as literature exactly, in its typical arena, but rather head-to-head with the dominant culture—up against the edifice that she identifies. That logic of multiplication and diversity, the scale and the frenzy of invention in this trilogy, and Despentes’s own larger-than-life resourcefulness all have an aspect of horror, suggesing in their negative the vastness and intractability of the power in her sights.