Rating 4 stars
The first book in Virginie Despentes’s trilogy about a down-on-his-luck former record dealer is a domino effect romp through the music world and its parallel den of vainglorious excess, the French film industry. The title character, Vernon Subutex, has in his possession a set of video tapes in which Alex Bleach, a recently deceased rock star, interviews himself and shares his wisdom with the world. While sofa surfing, Vernon sets off a chain of events that lead from a script writer to a film producer to a production assistant employed to find the latest vlogging trend to a social media account manager whose job is to flood the internet with misinformation in order to create the next big thing and a superfan journalist out to write a definitive biography of her idol. Plus all the people in between who knew Alex Bleach in passing but believed they knew him intimately.
It’s also a book about misogyny. Despentes uses a contrapuntal structure that feeds us the thoughts of the male characters followed by the thoughts of the female characters. It’s very much based in the adage men are from Mars, women are from Venus. It’s an amplification of smaller truths.
The book has an extensive cast of characters who appear and disappear and occasionally reappear later. The central character is absent. The book swirls around his absence, trying to unpick who he was through other people’s perceptions of him. Alex Bleach is by turns an enigma and a vacuum.
The titular Vernon Subutex is the connection between most of the other characters. Vernon is a type. He’s a man in his late-forties who refuses to settle down. He doesn’t want to become mundane. He deals in records, hangs out with rock stars, womanises, indulges in chemical stimulation, chain smokes, and is behind on the rent. His creator is a woman, and boy has she got under the skin of this character.
Vernon is shallow, arrogant, and inexplicably considered a charming rogue by most of the women of his acquaintance. I’ve known men like Vernon. Their self-belief is like a forcefield that, even when they’re talking about ogling schoolgirls in short skirts, somehow stops you challenging their chauvinism, or when they’re describing their latest sexual conquest with a violence of language that takes the breath away, somehow stops you calling out their misogyny. Despentes reveals to us Vernon’s disdain for women in myriad ways. Vernon directs his male gaze at each of his potential conquests, reducing them to nothing more than undeserving recipients of his largesse. Despentes also lets us see Vernon through the eyes of the women he interacts with. One woman, Emilie, nails Vernon’s character in a single paragraph.
In a world of boys desperately competing in a pissing contest, Vernon always seemed quietly confident, like he didn’t need to show off to prove that he was someone. He had a single quality, he was a record dealer. Not as cool as being a guitarist, but still higher up the pecking order than the average arsehole. Vernon broke girls’ hearts. When he first met them, he lavished them with compliments, put them on a magnificent pedestal seven metres high and then someone else caught his eye and he left them there, starved of sweet nothings and admiring glances.
Of all the women who briefly grace the pages of the novel, I liked Emilie the most. She was the bass player in a band that was made up of Vernon’s friends. Vernon doesn’t understand why she gave up music when the band split. Emilie tells us why. In the band, she was seen as one of the guys. Out of the band, she was considered a tedious hanger-on who was actively sidelined by a cabal of toxic men, kept on as a casual fuck by one of them, but generally viewed as an embarrassment.
… when she managed to get herself invited to dinner with them, she noticed that her voice no longer carried as far. No-one seemed to hear her. It was not hostility. To be hostile, they would first have had to notice her presence. When she mentioned it to Jean-No, he told her she was paranoid, that she always had to be the centre of attention, that she had never got over the band splitting up.
Emilie doesn’t give Vernon what he wants, and so we’re treated to his character assassination of her.
Seeing what Emilie has become is the saddest thing he has ever known. There is something rank in the air she breathes, something rancid that seeps into her and contaminates her energy. That said, she has become sexier with age. She is not as fresh-faced, she’s put on weight, but she carries it well. Her confidence makes her attractive, she was a bit of an airhead back in the day.
Vernon knows a lot about being rank and rancid. He’s a man who smokes cigarette butts picked up from office doorways, has yellow teeth and whose skin is becoming decrepit. But he’s generous enough to overlook it in a woman if there’s a chance she might fuck him.
Despentes doesn’t shy away from hateful characters. There are various levels of intolerance displayed by her cast of shitty individuals, from misogyny to racism via transphobia, homophobia and religious fanaticism. Some of these people made me want to close the book. The difficulty I have with characters who are representative of those in society that I would rather not engage with is that their presence in novels sometimes feels like an apologist depiction of a state of being that other readers might feel sympathy with. I went to listen to Sarah Perry in conversation with Beth Underdown at Manchester Literature Festival recently. Perry talked about the Gothic and the way it forces the reader to bear witness to and to acknowledge their complicity in the manmade horrors that exist in the world, while at the same time trying to evoke compassion in the reader. Despentes’s book isn’t Gothic. If it’s anything, it’s satire. Perhaps it was the undercurrent of glee at how horric the characters are that made me uncomfortable while reading it. Despite, or because of, Despentes’s depictions of these awful people, there’s something compelling about the book. It invites you to revel in the horror and disgust you feel for characters you can’t look away from. I also felt personally challenged by it.
A key player in the fate of the Bleach tapes is a film and television producer called Laurent. He finds out about the tapes at a party. His interest in them is specific and he makes it his mission to find out more about Vernon and to see the tapes before anyone else can beat him to it. His best bet is a professional troll, known as The Hyena. She’s a former drug dealer who got into the online promotion game by writing fake positive reviews of films but now helps her clients by trashing the competition. She helps Laurent maintain his position as a pound shop Harvey Weinstein.
Vernon, meanwhile, hops from woman to woman, preferring his own company, but currently unable to do without these women who will put him up in return for the pretence of romance. Eventually he skips on to an old friend, Gaëlle, who introduces him to the world of the rich and stupid types who inhabit multimillion euro apartments in exclusive arrondissements.
In between Vernon’s misadventures is an interlude with former porn star Pamela Kant and her transgender best mate Daniel. Daniel is the character who is treated with the most sympathy by Despentes. She reveals his backstory with a tender bluntness, raising questions about the process of gender transition and society’s framing of it as a form of mental illness.
A few times I wondered what relevance these characters had to the overall plot. Many are merely vehicles to move the story on and nothing more. They gave me the feeling of skipping over rooftops, looking in through windows and witnessing snapshots in the lives of the unloved and unlovely. Occasionally characters who I felt were merely ciphers were given backstories by Despentes that seemed to be more about her wanting to comment on a particular aspect of society and less about giving a character form, and the narrative depth.
Eventually, Vernon runs out of friends to call on. His unwillingness to tell the truth about his situation, his choice to cheat and rob the people who could help him rather than ask them for help, his rejection of care offered honestly in the face of his dishonesty, all leave him stranded, caught in the net of homelessness.
It’s not a perfect book, but I did find it a good read. Perhaps because the characters were so shallow and the plot so mercurial, it sped along nicely. It touches on serious subjects, mixed in with the flippant and the inconsequential, and reveals that we are all only a heartbeat from tragedy. It’s not a moralising tale, Despentes doesn’t make any judgement on the characters or their choices, instead leaving enough room for us to respond to them from our own position of prejudice, fear or sympathy. In that sense, I thought it was a clever book. I’m looking forward to reading part two.