In the second volume of the "Vernon Subutex" trilogy, Virginie Despentes looks beyond the margins of her white middle-class antihero.
Despentes’ art is to delve ever anew into the complex biographies of her characters Photo: imago/Agenda EFE
In the tradition of great novelists, Vernon Subutex is a protagonist almost without qualities, a schluffy everyman in his late 40s with a strikingly "bright eye" who tells us less about his intellectual prowess than about his charisma. At the same time, he is, as it is once said, still "in the last century […], when people still took pains to pretend that being was more important than having. Which promptly falls on his feet. At the beginning of Virginie Despentes’s three-part novel "The Life of Vernon Subutex," the first volume of which was published in German in the fall, Vernon had already closed down his Parisian record store "Revolver" – once a hub of cool and even prominent clientele in the neighborhood – and had been living off the sale of his belongings for two years.
Subutex is the proxy on which Despentes plays through all those fears of descent that are familiar to us socially insured middle-class people from lying awake at night, just like their interesting flip side, the fantasy of liberation. For even as one wonders between four and five in the morning whether, in an emergency, one would prefer to be hired at the Lidl checkout or at DHL, one can also be struck by the thought of whether it would not be extremely relieving and even literally enriching to have to get by with fewer possessions and obligations.
By having her ex-record dealer stay with a group of (ex-)friends after the seizure of his apartment in volume one and narrating Vernon’s descent chapter by chapter from their alternating perspectives, Despentes provides deep insights into the soul of these semi-sedentary bobos between , whose jobs in the music business, journalism and porn industry have been radically plowed up by digitalization since the 1990s. On top of that, and here the author, who was born in 1969, presumably speaks from her own experience, the once wild creative hipsters have already fought their first battles against their own aging, and not infrequently lost.
Arrived at the bottom
At the beginning of the second volume, which has just been published, Vernon has really hit rock bottom. He almost died of flu on the edge of the Buttes-Chaumont park in Paris, had it not been for a few homeless people looking after him. In the first volume, the author already looked beyond the white bobos and integrated, for example, Aicha, the religious daughter of North African immigrants, or Loic, a bicycle courier who sympathizes with the right, into her panorama of characters. With the homeless of the Buttes-Chaumont, she expands the spectrum again considerably.
Even the improbable story of drunk Charles’ lottery million win is convincing in Despentes: "Gradually he got used to the situation and realized what he would do with this money: nothing. At first he was totally gobsmacked, but after some reflection he found his life the best it could be. He would continue it, only in better."
Despentes delves deep into the complex inner worlds of her characters
Charles’ insight into the advantages of homelessness gives the secret starting signal for a happy turn in the hitherto rather depressive decline narrative. Vernon’s old friends and acquaintances are on the lookout for him, partly out of genuine sympathy, partly because the hunt for his only remaining asset has brought them together: a last interview he recorded with dead punk rock buddy Alex Bleach, in which many from porn star Pamela Kant (!) to nasty film producer Dopalet (a mix of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Harvey Weinstein) are interested.
Instead of winning back the matted friend for bourgeois life, the troupe follows him out into the park and there to the pub "Rosa Bonheur", where Vernon is DJing again and perhaps fine-tuning his comeback as a DJ shaman of a heroic musical past. All these come-togethers between bums and aging creatives might look too utopian-rosy if a young trio of women didn’t simultaneously launch a vendetta against Dopalet, who is now suspected of having committed a sexist crime.
But basically such plot twists are beside the point, no matter how cleverly they are mounted in the alternating current of perspectives. Despentes’s extraordinary art consists in diving into the complex inner worlds and biographies of her characters with apt observation and abundant sarcasm – no matter whether it’s the frustrated wife of an unsuccessful screenwriter or a liberal humanities scholar with an immigrant background.
Tense to the breaking point
The result is a multi-layered portrait of a plural urban society that, despite all the successes of emancipation, is tense to the breaking point: "He loves this country to the point of madness," we read, for example, about the university lecturer Selim: "The schools, the clean streets, the railroad network, the impossible spelling, the vineyards, the philosophers, the literature and the institutions. But the French around him no longer live in the France that so inspires him. They are suffering."
Virginie Despentes: "The Life of Vernon Subutex 2". Translated from the French by Claudia Steinitz. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne 2018, 400 pages, 22 euros.
At the same time, as we learn from Vernon’s left-wing buddy Patrice, "people have had their brains so washed for ten years. They’ve been robbed of all the dignity they’d acquired over centuries of class struggle, and the only goddamn trick they’ve been sold to make them feel like less of a shit is the triumph that they’re white and have the right to look down on every darkie."
Where does Vernon drift in this mishmash? Does liberation triumph or, in the end, fear? Part 3, which – like the two predecessors – is translated by the congenial Claudia Steinitz in a gripping manner and with a great sense of rhythm, is eagerly awaited.