Vernon Subutex 1
(MacLehose Press, 2017)
“Life is often a game of two halves,” thinks Vernon Subutex, the hapless character at the center of Virgine Despentes’s virtuosic Vernon Subutex 1. “In the first half it lulls you, makes you think you’re in control; in the second, when it sees you’re relaxed and helpless, it comes around again and grinds you to a pulp.”
This quote could easily apply to the structure of the Anaïs Nin Prize-winning, Man Booker International-shortlisted Vernon Subutex 1. The first half of the novel sets out in a straightforward enough manner: we meet Vernon Subutex, a middle-aged man immobilized with apathy and debt. After his business—a Parisian record store called Revolver—shutters in 2006, he finds himself unemployable: “his chances of finding work were slimmer than if he had been a coalminer.” He manages to keep his apartment for seven or eight years, both by living off a frugal diet of rice and hand rolled cigarettes and by turning to his friend Alexandre Bleach, a mega-famous pop star, to pay his rent.
But then Alexandre Bleach dies of an overdose and Vernon Subutex is evicted. He lands on the street carrying only a backpack and tapes of an interview the drug-addled Alexandre Bleach conducted with himself. (“It’s, like, my last will and testament, man, you get it?”)
Vernon is the anti-parvenu, and what follows is less of his fall from grace than a pachinko-ing towards rock bottom. He reaches out to everyone he knows from the salad days of Revolver and Alexandre Bleach’s height of fame, and begins couch-surfing with increasingly seedy acquaintances. Word gets out, via an ambitious screenwriter and a ruthless film executive, about Alexandre Bleach’s “last will and testament,” and soon a variety of Parisians, including a woman whose job it is to decimate online reputations and a journalist with the pen surname Bazooka, are on the hunt for Vernon Subutex.
The novel’s first half is grim, luminous, and packed with stunning psychological insight, but it’s contained enough to allow the reader to feel in control. You’re lulled by the trajectory of the mystery—what do those tapes reveal?—and the chase. Then, the second half cartwheels off the course of the caper and twists into something darker and more exuberant.
While the point of view in initial chapters alternates dependably between Vernon and the people that give him a couch to sleep on, the number of characters in Vernon Subutex expands as news of Vernon’s plight spreads across his Facebook friends’ newfeeds. Vernon Subutex is revealed as less a protagonist than a node at the center of a social matrix.
Vernon Subutex 1 is the best novel we have about Facebook, and not just because its cast is a reflection of one man’s “friends list.” Vernon’s Facebook use propels the novel’s forward momentum. Even while destitute, Vernon manages to hang on to a laptop, posting sentimental Youtube clips, gleaning likes from potential hosts, and approaching them on Messanger.
Facebook, market research tells us, is the playground of the graying set, including the Gen-X’ers of Vernon Subutex 1. Pushing fifty, the central figures in Vernon Subutex 1 are preoccupied with nostalgia, worrying about the decay of old age, and mirthlessly doing heroic amounts of cocaine. They’re also convulsed in rage. We’re given access to the people that populate Vernon’s orbit for a chapter, at most two, and these chapters are written in the style so prevalent on Facebook: the anger-fueled rant.
Some of this rage is manifested in ugliness, hatred, and bigotry. An affluent family man simmers with barely-controlled xenophobia in the supermarket; a group of right-wing fanatics stroll the streets “in battle formation,” hopped up on an adreno-muscular stimulant called Napalm; a wife-beating Marxist states that he wouldn’t commit domestic abuse if he was wealthier: “I’ve got no professional future. If I quit being violent, when do I ever get to feel like I’m the master?”
The women who populate Vernon Subutex 1 are, by and large, less full of bile (although one ex-junkie-turned-affluent-mother is cutting and “[w]hat she most appreciates about her girlfriends is the ability to rip them apart once their backs are turned.” But they’re no less filled with rage. There’s Emilie, who’s learning the art of being selfish in middle age: “She’s sick and tired of fucking poets. Of guys too sensitive to put in a day’s work.” There’s Aïcha, deeply religious and grappling with the fact that her mother used to be a porn star.
Vernon Subutex 1, had it simply chronicled a cross-section of Parisian life circa 2013-14, could have read like an eloquent time capsule. Instead, it’s a brilliant, blistering social novel that’s only become more relevant since its initial 2015 publication. Vernon Subutex touches upon the increasing precariousness and invaluableness of the personal brand, the spread of misinformation online, and the rise of the right wing populism. Prescience can sound ponderous; in Despentes’ hands it’s wry: “Xavier was always a right-wing cunt. He has not changed, it is simply that the world is now aligned with his obsessions.”
The translation, by the award-winning Frank Wynne (best known for his translations of Michel Houellebecq), uses Anglicisms that make the dry wit of Vernon Subutex 1 sound especially deadpan to American ears. In a dizzying, brilliant chapter (the English translation of which was initially excerpted in The White Review) a coked-up finance bro slings phrases like “He nearly lost his rag,” and “piss-poor excuse about not having his gear.”
Vernon Subutex 1 is the first of a trilogy; the English translation of Vernon Subutex 2 will be published in June. In Europe, the books have transformed Despentes’s literary reputation from respected cult icon—of titles like the feminist revenge novel Baise-moi and the Prix Renaudot-awarded Apocalypse bébé—to bestselling author. Despentes continues to grapple with the themes—gender, violence, cultural capital—that shaped her earlier books. Indeed, none of the audaciousness or anger of Despentes’s previous work has been diluted in Vernon Subutex 1. It’s just been expanded to encompass a wider cast.
The characters in Vernon Subutex 1, in all their livid ugliness, thrust the reader into unexpected empathy. Vernon is a hangdog Everyman even at his most cretinous, and the most unsavory of his hosts reveal anguish layered under their scar tissue. Vernon Subutex grinds you to a pulp, but it also exposes you to something urgently human. This is a vital novel.
REBECCA RUKEYSER is a writer and teacher. She lives in Berlin.