Rating 4 stars
I read the first book in Virginie Despentes’s trilogy about a down-on-his-luck former record dealer earlier this autumn. I enjoyed its mercurial plot and its shallow characters enough to ask my local library to buy volume two.
We re-encounter Vernon Subutex living rough in northern Paris. His state of mind is one of not caring about anything. In volume one, he had deposited his friend Xavier at a hospital after he came off worst in a brawl with a group of fascists, and then scarpered before anyone tried to return him to his old life.
Vernon takes refuge in an abandoned house. Somehow he still attracts kindness and assistance to him, whether it’s Charles who looks like a tramp but isn’t, Jeanine who feeds the local stray cats and adopts Vernon in the same way, or Stéphane who used to work next door to Vernon’s record store and is now the foreman on a nearby building site where he allows Vernon to use the portaloos during the day.
Despentes continues to build on the web of interconnectedness she began in the first book. Charles is acquainted with Laurent, who first helped Vernon out when he started his life on the streets. Laurent in turn is vaguely acquainted with Émilie who is looking for Vernon so that she can pass on some news.
Émilie had been my favourite of Vernon’s female friends in the first book, and I was glad to see her again so early in the pages of the second. Her role in volume one had been a brief one.
There had been times in volume one when I had wondered what relevance some of the characters had to the overall plot. I wasn’t thinking then about this story being a trilogy and therefore a long ranging tale. The frustration I’d felt at the slightness of people who entered Vernon’s life so briefly translated into admiration for Despentes’s plotting as soon as I realised she was playing a long game.
The pace changes in the second book, too. It feels more meditative, the spaces that the characters occupy more familiar, and that’s the result of the frenetic pace of the world building that Despentes delivered in volume one. The chaos of the first book feels more normal in the second, which must be akin to the experience of those who plunge out of the regularity of average existence into the irregularity of being a noncitizen and then exchange their understanding of what makes normality so that their old life is a foreign country. It’s certainly Vernon’s experience. It made me wonder what research Despentes had done to develop such an understanding of the normality of homelessness.
It’s a poignant book at times, particularly Vernon’s reflections on who he used to be and who he has become. When he’s reunited with a collection of his former friends, people who have given him a bed for the night, his bewilderment is tangible through the page.
Despentes develops each of the characters who cross over between the two books, adding depth to their actions and humanity to their relationship with Vernon. Even The Hyena becomes more human, someone with deeply buried vulnerabilities.
Politics flow through the novel, in the form of commentary on the loss of the political left in France and the feelings of some characters toward the 1%. A recurring theme of the inner monologues of a handful of the male characters is the perceived desire of the rich to stir up the poor to slaughter each other. Despentes is articulating a set of beliefs about the end game of capitalism in its neo-liberal guise.
When Vernon and his friends eventually gather at The Hyena’s apartment to watch the video tapes left by Alex Bleach, the central mystery of the book is simultaneously revealed and solved. Why did Vodka Satana commit suicide and was Bleach’s death linked to hers?
New characters are introduced, like Céleste the tattoo artist/waitress and Antoine, Dopalet’s ineffectual son. The story concerning Céleste, Aïcha, Dopalet and Aïcha’s revenge for her mother Satana’s death reminded me of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
I sensed a glee in Despentes’s writing of the characters, as though she had enjoyed making these people the worst they could possibly be. At the same time, she maintains their humanity. They’re not cartoon-like. She keeps their excesses of misanthropy just the right side of normal. They are people we encounter every day. On the surface, they function within the rules of society. In private, they hold abhorrent views, do despicable things, live lives that are far from perfect. Despentes has them talk about things that rarely appear in literary fiction. Gaëlle is a woman approaching the menopause, experiencing the change in menstruation that signals menstruation is nearing its end. It’s not necessary to the plot that we know this about her, but it’s a nod to the women who are reading that they are recognised by the author. The same is true, I think, of Aïcha who could easily have become a cipher for Arabic women living in secular France who choose to take the veil. Aïcha is a hijab wearing badass, though. Despentes explores Aïcha’s reasons for devoting herself to a strict form of Islam through Aïcha’s own narrative and through the reactions of her secular father and the wider French public, whom Despentes divides into racists and unthinking lefty liberals. Anaïs and Céleste are both young women who want to lead their lives on their own terms but who have each fallen into ruts that will feel familiar to women their age who end up waitressing while waiting for their creative ducks to line up, or who move from internship to internship waiting for the experience that the people who are exploiting them for cheap labour tell them they are building to convert into fully paid positions. It was this content, alongside the engaging central plot, that hooked me into this volume in the series even more than the first book had.
One thing annoyed me about the novel, and it was the inadequate editing for typos and poor syntax. I don’t know whether it’s because volumes one and two were published in English translation just over a year apart, resulting in a rush to publish that cast aside time spent on editing the second volume, or whether publishing houses have cut back on editorial staff in the same way that newspapers have. I have learned over the years to let go of most of my irritation with typos in novels. It takes a certain level of frequency for my dander to rise now. Towards the end of this volume there were enough errors to be intrusive on my reading. In the case of a book like this, with its tight plotting and the fact that it’s a novel written by a woman that doesn’t fit the usual mould of female literature, this lack of care felt disrespectful to Despentes.
That aside, I fully enjoyed reading this second installment in the adventures of Vernon Subutex. Volume 3 was published in France in May 2017. I couldn’t find reference to any upcoming English translation on the MacLehose Press website, or on the microsite vernonsubutex.net, which wouldn’t work properly for me on my tablet. There’s a tantalising reference to it coming our way at the end of the review of volume two in the Irish Times. I’m going to have to keep my eyes peeled.
In the meantime, my library has an earlier book by Despentes that might fill the gap. Apocalypse Baby also features a character known as The Hyena. A bit of backstory never did any harm.