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Jul
07

Vernon Subutex 3 by Virginie Despentes review perfectly over-the-top end to Parisian potboiler – The Guardian

Virginie Despentes: a dark story of how violence can be turned to entertainment. Photograph: Ed Alcock/The Guardian

Virginie Despentes made her debut with 1992s Baise-moi (Fuck Me), about a killing spree carried out by two women turning the tables on male violence. Despentes directed the controversial film adaptation, which is probably what shes still best known for, although she has written several other novels, as well as the nonfiction King Kong Theory, on her experience of rape and brief period as a sex worker.

Her latest book, Vernon Subutex 3, concludes a multi-voiced trilogy that holds up a cracked mirror to Paris between the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the Bataclan massacre. Its been her biggest success yet, although Despentes is characteristically sceptical. Once you have a male character, she told an interviewer, your novel is seen as a portrait of a generation ... if Vernon Subutex had been a woman, the novel ... would have been The sad case of a female loser who did not get properly married and was not able to give birth.

Imagine, if you will, James Ellroy and William Gibson rewriting High Fidelity and youre somewhere near the tone

A pulpy thriller narrative built around the notion that rampant free-market values have left a moral and spiritual void at the centre of French society, the book starts when Vernon, a former record shop owner, finds himself homeless in middle age. Somehow, he becomes the front man for an anticapitalist commune hosting rave-like gatherings in the countryside, drawing unwelcome scrutiny from murderous movie mogul Laurent Dopalet, who is concerned by the news that Vernon is in possession of VHS footage revealing the truth behind a porn actresss apparent overdose.

Imagine, if you will, James Ellroy and William Gibson rewriting High Fidelity and youre somewhere near the tone. At the start of book 3, Vernons crew are squabbling over a surprise bequest from an elderly wino who didnt tell anyone hed won the lottery; Dopalet is trying to track down two young women who attacked him and have since gone to ground, communicating in code on Justin Biebers Instagram.

The plot is wild enough but the novels real energy, somewhere between contrarian op-ed and off-colour standup, lies in how Despentes stays out of the picture to let the story unfold through the thoughts of its large, 20-plus cast, from a rehab worker describing life as a single mother with a teenage son, to a cocaine-addicted ex-trader seeking his next fortune by turning Vernon into a new L Ron Hubbard.

Despentes isnt interested in giving you any sign of what to make of it all, relentlessly stress-testing our sense of right and wrong, whether shes writing from the point of view of far-right youths lamenting unemployment, or a secular Muslim academic torn by his daughters religious devotion. Characters frequently decry one type of bigotry only to replace it with another; a speech about how bank bailouts are a bigger issue than the arrival of a few thousand refugees ends up in the mouth of someone who assaults his wife.

Theres a sense of mischief throughout, as if Despentes is gleefully spinning the wheel in tracing these stories. A coda explains that the events we are reading about are being narrated 900 years hence and have formed the basis of a manga series, which it sometimes resembles.Its telling that a predatory manager of talent-show winners is the one who sets off the climactic bloodshed; assorted heroines include a tattooist and an anti-fascist photographer who finds herself on the streets, like Vernon, after losing work to the digital revolution. A common theme is decline: from drugs to the postal service to entertainment, it was all better in the 20th century. One ex-teacher thinks: By the 1990s, a generation of arseholes force-fed sugar since the cradle had grown up to be a horde of degenerates.

Ultimately, its a dark story of how violence can be turned to entertainment for the sake of profit. It can be exhausting, but its also invigorating, and there isnt really anything else like it right now.

Vernon Subutex 3 by Virginie Despentes (translated by Frank Wynne) is published by Quercus (14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over 15

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Vernon Subutex 3 by Virginie Despentes review perfectly over-the-top end to Parisian potboiler - The Guardian