Rating 4 stars
The final installment in Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex trilogy draws together threads from the previous books and has characters zigzagging into one another’s lives, turned there by coincidence and kismet.
I bought it last summer, since my local library didn’t take up my request to add it to their stock, and have been waiting for the right moment to read it. I’m glad I did, because it was just the thing I needed to remind me of how great reading is.
The third installment opens with Vernon on a train carrying him from Bordeaux to Paris, where he will be treated for an abscess on his tooth. Despentes allows Vernon to ruminate on his very different lot in life as the train flashes across France. He ponders his irregular convergences, akin to raves, that draw people to him, and how the music he plays connects with them. The description of how people experience the music Vernon plays during his night long dj sets reminded me of how being at music festivals used to make me feel – part of a pop-up community, mostly off-grid, immersed in music, conversation, silence when you needed it. Vernon serves a purpose for people who want some downtime from the rat race.
Despentes takes the opportunity to remind us that, although this is the new Vernon, he hasn’t changed in some respects. His view of women is still as antediluvian as ever. He has a younger girlfriend, but still finds time to fantasise about hooking up with an attractive older woman sitting opposite him on the train. His relationship with Mariana is open, meaning he can hook up with whichever women at his convergences want to sleep with him. He is, allegedly, special.
During his Paris trip, Vernon receives some news that wreaks another change in him. Despentes encapsulates it in a paragraph I found profoundly affecting.
He does not say what he is thinking. He is thinking that no-one is solid. Nothing. No group. That is the hardest thing to learn. That we are tenants of a situation, not landlords.
The first half of the paragraph called Marx to mind, and his statement that “All that is solid melts into air” about the destruction of feudalism’s rigidity by the revolutionary bourgeoisie, ushering in capitalism. It makes sense that Despentes has Vernon allude to Marx, as these three books are a critique of capitalism, and this third volume contains much Marxist sentiment, including a speech by one character towards the end about the corruption in government that serves the purpose of the 1%. It was the last two sentences that struck me personally, though. I’ve written before about my dislike of change, my need to feel in control, the difficulty I have when plans are disrupted or I can’t see an end to a situation. It’s been compounded by the impact of the pandemic on normal life, in the way planning now for the year (or years) ahead feels futile, both in work and personally. Despite repeated experiences of Vernon’s truth in the quoted paragraph, it is the hardest thing to learn. I hadn’t thought about it as being a tenant and not a landlord, though. Somehow that helps.
Characters from the previous two books are still in Vernon’s circle, others have fallen away. Kiko, the stockbroker who ‘discovered’ Vernon as a dj, has abandoned his flirtation with communal life and gone back to his flash apartment in Paris. He is Vernon’s fixer, whenever Vernon needs to return to the regular world.
Véro, the partner of Vernon’s friend Charles, has more of a role in this book. Through her, we learn more about Charles, the lottery winner who dropped out and lived freely as an alcoholic. We also learn about co-dependency from the purview of a woman, why a woman might stay with someone she doesn’t love, how aging changes the way women are perceived, making settling for someone a survival instinct. Véro is an interesting character. She bemoans the way life is run by men, but her solution isn’t to fight for women to have a share of the power, it’s to train boys differently for leadership, and to focus on immigrant boys. As with all Despentes’s characters, Véro is unpleasant, difficult to like, and at the same time it’s possible to feel sympathy for her.
This is the thing that Despentes is doing with these three books, I think: taking the people who society doesn’t see as the heroes and using them to criticise the society that has both made and rejected them. They are unpleasant, but they are true to themselves, and Despentes shows that you don’t have to be a model citizen to have value in society. It reminds me of how Dostoevsky raised a lens to what was corrupt in Russian society. And maybe Vonnegut, too, because there’s a weary humour in what Despentes depicts.
Dopalet continues to be a chauvinist, but now he’s also transformed by the attack on him by Aïcha and Céleste in book 2 into the type of bile-filled, anti-Semitic, men’s rights, common sense, culture warrior that came to the fore in Western society around 2016 and is currently the loudest of the emptiest vessels. The type who are courted by politicians who want power more than a moral compass. Despentes documents the way this state of affairs has come about through the experiences and beliefs of a small group of the male characters.
Xavier, the screenwriter who joined Vernon’s commune in book 2, is a conduit for Despentes to reflect further on racism, religious hatred, bigotry in general. Xavier’s opinions are hard to read because they come from a very different mindset to my own, but I could recognise truth in what Despentes has him articulate: that we all have something that we despise in others; that we all want to be exclusively among people who think like us; that social media facilitates echo chambers and hatred of others. There are echoes of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind in what Xavier expresses. Haidt’s assertion that conservative politics appeals across a broader range of moral foundations than liberal/socialist politics, and the left needs to understand that better, still grinds on me, but this three part work by Despentes illustrates the truth in it. Not so long ago, I followed a link to another participant’s Six Degrees of Separation and found an angry neocon American at the other end. I wanted to engage but I also didn’t want to engage, because what’s the point? We are both entrenched in our worldviews. So it goes.
I was glad to encounter Aïcha again and experience through her the life of a Muslim woman living in a secular Western society. Despentes depicts without judgement the requirements Aïcha’s religion places on her to be a pure woman, and portrays Aïcha’s crisis with the tenderness of Willa Cather or Edith Wharton describing the fall from grace of a Christian woman from an earlier time.
There are new characters, too. Stéphanie is friends with three of the women in Vernon’s commune: Marie-Ange (wife of Xavier), Pénélope (fiancée of Patrice), and Sylvie (former lover of Alex Bleach and briefly infatuated with Vernon in book 1). A single mother, Stéphanie makes sure to disabuse the other women of their romantic notions of motherhood. She makes clear the differences in what society deems acceptable parenting by men compared with the parenting standard women are measured against.
Stéphanie’s teenage son’s admiration for Mohamed Merah, the French gunman who killed seven people in Toulouse in 2012, allows Despentes to meditate on the presence of unrest in immigrant communities and how that turns into violence against fellow citizens who represent their oppressors. It called to mind what I had read in Souad Mekhennet’s memoir I Was Told to Come Alone.
As well as Toulouse, later in the book Despentes refers to the killings at the Charlie Hebdo offices in 2015 and the Bataclan attack later the same year, to show how the Western world suddenly changed to one openly governed by fear and suspicion of ‘the other’.
Suspicion infiltrates the fragile harmony of Vernon’s commune, with the news he brings back from Paris. Things begin to fragment, and Vernon sets off with Mariana on yet another path.
Stéphanie’s ex brings things full circle. Max was Alex Bleach’s first manager. He knew Vernon when he joined Bleach’s circle. He’s desperate for an invite to a convergence and tries to befriend Xavier. Then he encounters someone in Barcelona who shouldn’t be there, and he takes the information to Dopalet.
Brutality follows. There isn’t much, but it’s worth mentioning. It isn’t described in detail, but it doesn’t need to be. Despentes is a skilled writer who knows how much it takes for the brain to conjure images. This is where nuanced literature is better than the extreme violence that exists in films and on tv. Portrayed violence is so extreme at times that it becomes banal. Violence doesn’t need to be spelled out to be affecting. It’s more affecting if it isn’t, in fact. And it’s kinder not to spell it out, to allow the reader or viewer more control over the trauma. It is right to bear witness to the existence of brutality, but that shouldn’t mean we have it forced upon us.
The particular brutality that happens is one of a number of reminders that, when women go out confidently into the world, it is never in the unthinking way that men do it. For women, that confidence is in defiance of what is expected of us, because we have to grab hold of the public space that is gifted to men, especially if we want to do it individually, without a protective group around us. Despentes reminds us that a confident woman is a red flag to a certain type of man. Most of us won’t experience the physical violence these men think will bring us down a peg or two, as punishment for them not being allowed to expect a woman to stay at home, the good and compliant little wifey, cooking and cleaning, bearing and raising children for them. Instead, we’ll experience the physical watered down, or verbal violence, often pretended as a joke, less so on social media.Four men are involved in the brutality. Each has his own reaction to it. None of them stops it. Two of them are directly responsible for how it all ends.
The ending isn’t what I expected at all. I thought it would be inconclusive in a familiar way. It’s more surprising and, as with this series of novels, has music at its core.
I’m very glad that I picked up the first book from the library, following its shortlisting for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize. The storytelling across the three volumes has been exceptional. I wonder what Despentes will do next.