“A spectacle that will eventually break your heart”: Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex 1

“We never realised we would fuck up this badly, did we?”… “If we had known, what difference would it have made?”

Vernon Subutex 1, recently shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, is not a book of ideas. It is not a romance. It is not a book of reconciliation. This is not a novel which implies – it is at all times compulsively explicit. It isn’t trying to teach us anything (but that is not to say that in the end it does not). What this book does do – just like Peter Pan – is remind us what a terrible thing it is having to grow up.

Its subjects are not amongst the averagely deranged. Porn stars, rock stars, mid=level screenwriters, big shot producers, the one trick ponies, the has beens, the almost were somethings: misfits. There is even a dog called Colette. They are those who gambled; some badly, some well, with everything that was on offer – sex, drugs, power, desire – even their gender, until they were all used up. Until someone better inevitably came along and replaced them. And it is at this point that we meet them. They have, by now, sought out a crease in reality, and within it they watch their afterimage play out. And we observe them from the side lines, every few pages readjusting to the internal monologue of a new veteran, sharing with us the spectacle of their individual heyday, their individual triumph, their individual collapse.

And Virginie Despentes is not your average author. Formally a sex worker and maid, now, as well as an author, she is a filmmaker and freelance rock journalist. A lifer. Many of the characters within the novel are people she knew; one of them is her. The Hyena: an appropriate name for the author of this text. No, let’s call her the ringmaster of this phantasmagoria of 21st century France. She doesn’t leave anything out. Sexism, racism, misogyny, violence, domestic abuse, drug use, homelessness, suicide, all that is vicious, all that is profane, the human tragedies that we think will never happen to us – all are set ablaze, soundtracked relentlessly by 90’s punk rock.

What is central and indisputable is the novel’s cohesion. Despentes offers up a sacrificial lamb. The novel’s namesake is Vernon Subutex. He has a touch of Peter Pan, a touch of ageing Jude Law. Or that guy who once upon a time owned record shop called Revolver. He hovers passively in the maelstrom at the heart of the book, unwittingly, even a little lazily doling out the chaos which holds the narrative suspended. We watch as he hurtles towards an end, which, due to Despentes masterful grasp of her form, we get to watch from all angles. Narrated by a unabashed and deeply unhappy chorus, the dialogue has that cocaine sharpness which holds your attention at gunpoint, even as you start to feel a little seasick.

As the list of the dead is getting longer, Vernon, it seems, is running out of time. But who isn’t? Those already dead we meet in the memories of those who are still around. They are remembered with guilt, doubt, barely hidden resentment. At times reading Vernon Subutex is like sitting in your kitchen listening to next door’s dogs fighting just feet away. You find yourself caught between desperately wanting the violence to stop, or listening on. Simultaneously hypnotised and repulsed by the snarls.

An outstanding translation by award winning translator Frank Wynne, Vernon Subutex is, as all dog fights are, a spectacle that will eventually break your heart. Because at those moments where you want to admit defeat, Despentes rolls the dice and delivers us the purest segments of emotion imaginable. Her psychology is at all times dangerously real, momentarily devastating. This is a modern fairytale, cinematic, witty, ironic, immediately iconic; Vernon Subutex will make you feel self aware; it will move you to tears, it will make you feel alive.

Virginie Despentes, Vernon Subutex 1, Translated from the French by Frank Wynne, MacLehose Press/ 352p/ £12.99