Vernon Subutex I by Virginie Despentes

Review published on April 12, 2018.

This is a superbly entertaining literary novel of contemporary Paris and it’s inhabitants that has real depth of character. What the French would call a Comédie Humane in the tradition of Balzac, (comparisons have been drawn by some European critics). I suspect I was predisposed to like Vernon Subutex because the cultural references are right up my street: punk rock and the great Joe Strummer, the record shop ‘Revolution’ (the focal point for the characters’ past relationships) and the counter culture – a story in which I can see many comparisons with my own youth. That does not detract from the fact that this is a fine novel by any standard.

Vernon Subutex I, the first part of a trilogy, is not only effortlessly readable but has a breadth and scope that is awesome. The reader is in no doubt about the intensity of Despentes feeling but her expression is more controlled than in previous novels – all the more forceful for being tempered. Letting the reader draw their own conclusions about Vernon Subutex and the people he connects with. But there is also so much here for the reader to enjoy in the characters and the style of prose, Vernon Subutex feels like the work of a writer who has suddenly discovered her purpose in life.

Vernon Subutex is a novel of blinding insight into modern day society, through a group of people all connected to Alex Bleach, rock star of yesteryear. There are sublime passages of prose and Despentes has a wicked sense of humour and an eye for the absurd in people’s lives. Yet the anger and intensity where the themes of racism, sexism and abuse are to the fore leaves you in no doubt about the depth of her feeling. There are many issues in the novel but the all pervasive casual sexism and lack of respect for other people is at the heart of Subutex’ tale. Subutex appears to be charismatic and popular but he is deluded and has no idea how much of a user he is. As his story unfolds we get to know the man and he is unsympathetic but also fascinating. The story often revolves around the ‘he thought this and she thought that’ dichotomy that lead to so much misunderstanding between two people about the issues between them. Vernon Subutex is an exploration of emotional intelligence and empathy. Too often Vernon is unaware of the effect his actions, his lack of real engagement that affects the people around him.

Parisian Vernon Subutex has fallen on hard times, more due to inertia than anything else visible in his backstory. For twenty years he ran the Revolver record shop until the fateful advent of Napster (an event he sees as a tsunami). Now he can’t pay the rent, buy cigarettes or run his mobile without the hand outs from his rock star friend, Alex Bleach. He has always lived on the edge of a sex- and drug-fuelled rock-and-roll existence, he’s a good looking guy and women are attracted to him. The people around him are dying, it should be a cause for reflection. Eventually Alex, whose drug taking is legendary, dies in bathtub of one of the hotel rooms he loved so much. Vernon no longer has a protector and he loses his apartment. He begins drifting; figuring out who he can tap up, charm and relive the old days with. He has built up a lot of credit, not all of it earned. He lies about being homeless saying he is returning from Canada and needs a place to stay temporarily. He begins with Emilie, the bass player, former band member, a woman excluded when the band broke up and looking for consolation. Then there is Xavier, the script writer, now a family man, Sylvie the online reviewer, Laurent the film maker, Lydia Bazooka the writer looking to do a book on Alex, Pamela the porn star, Daniel and Gaëlle and a host of interesting characters. Gradually, a picture of Vernon’s descent emerges as he rekindles relationships, draws in other characters to his existence and screws everything up.

“In the face of disaster, Vernon decided on a course of action: he played the guy who has not noticed anything unusual….but Vernon has lost none of his indifference, none of his elegance.”

Despentes writes sentence that have those truths that we all recognise abound. This puncturing of a blasé phrase people often attribute to life demonstrates:

“the drawback of karma theory was that if there ever was even a grain of truth in the notion that ‘what goes around comes around’ people would have long since stop being arseholes.”

You could not accuse Vernon of self knowledge, in response to a racist rant by Xavier about a Jewish female TV presenter he remarks:

“You can tell she’s a woman who enjoys sex.”

Is he thinking he is the better man for not being a racist? Yet he does not recognising his innate sexism – his equal diminution of the person. Subutex is deluded, but aren’t we all when it comes to our own character? He is selfish and thoughtless. He is no hero, he is a weak everyman who doesn’t learn much from life. He is a product of the modern world of a failing societal structure and in that this is a political novel, Despentes has something to say about how we live our lives in a changing world.

I have a feeling the three volumes will come together to form a grand social satire, an epic of modern life; a study of people and how they cope with the changes in life, they are all linked by Vernon and the presence of Alex Bleach, the dead rock star. Their stories are witty and tragic and very real.

The writing is vivid and colourful, fluid, strong on political intent. At times Vernon Subutex is mercilessly funny. I was nearly 200 pages in before I came up for breath I was enjoying this read so much. Despentes has gone to another level with this novel and I can’t wait for the further adventures of Vernon Subutex. This may be a drug- and drink-fuelled world of semi-celebrity and hangers on but the stories are true to life; people ageing and reacting to the changing world (social media, particularly Facebook, play a part in Subutex’s story).

When I heard that Vernon Subutex I was nominated for the International Booker Prize I was more than a little surprised. I have previously read Baise-Moi (1992) and Apocalypse Baby (2010), and while there was a lot to admire in Despentes’ writing it was challenging at times, not always accessible. If you consider Baise-Moi is the revenge tale of a woman who has been raped and intends to make men pay you can imagine the justified anger in her prose. I never doubted she was an author with something to say but it wasn’t easy to listen to, her anger sometimes preventing the message getting across to a wider audience. Despentes certainly knows how to create controversy. Vernon Subutex is worthy of the prizes it has already won and the International Booker listing, a marvellous novel.

Paul Burke 5/5

Vernon Subutex I by Virginie Despentes
MacLehose Press 9780857055415 pbk Jun 2017

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