By Katharine Coldiron
Virginie Despentes’s novel reads like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia mashed with Don Quixote and set in contemporary Paris.
Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. Translated from the French by Frank Wynne. FSG Originals, Paperback, 352 pp, $16.
What happens to punk Gen-Xers when they reach middle age? If they have not folded into the normal structures of adulthood, or flamed out on drugs and hard living, what becomes of them? How do they live? Virginie Despentes elects to answer this question with a variety of personal scenarios in Vernon Subutex 1 (the first of three volumes about Vernon, all translated by Frank Wynne), which reads like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia mashed with Don Quixote and set in contemporary Paris. Literarily, it can be classified as a picaresque, but it’s closer to an ensemble film — a lengthy series of character studies, clustered loosely around Vernon Subutex and Alexandre Bleach, an old friend of Vernon’s and a mainstream rock star sitting somewhere between Kurt Cobain, Syd Barrett, and Lenny Kravitz.
Vernon is a former record store owner who gets evicted from his apartment after Alexandre, his main source of rent money, dies of an overdose. For an indeterminate number of weeks or months, Vernon stays with friends and acquaintances, sleeping on their couches or in their spare beds (or in their beds, period), before running out of friends and landing on the street. A handful of greedy characters chase after him for a set of private videotapes owned by Alexandre, but since Vernon has no phone and no fixed address, they don’t catch up until the end of the book.
That’s all there really is to the plot. However, plot isn’t the point; this book is about voice and character. Each chapter presents a new mind for the reader to leap into, whether it’s unapologetically violent Patrice, unhinged and materialistic Sylvie, or grumpy former porn star Pamela. Each character gets a full hearing on the page, as much space as they want to untangle their individual histories for the reader, as much time as they need to rant about whatever makes them angry or regretful, before the book moves on to the next.
Despentes skillfully inhabits all of these characters, but the common thread in most of them is a towering, nihilistic rage. Nearly none of these people, living in Paris in the 21st century, has what they want, and nearly all of them have selected external targets to blame for their emptiness. This blame leads them to bigotry, misogyny, stalking, domestic violence, unchecked greed, drug addiction, fraud—name a sin, and someone in this book will be enslaved by it.
The total immersion into hostility practiced by Vernon Subutex 1 often makes it an unpleasant read. A few paragraphs of Kiko, a wealthy and megalomaniacal financier whose entire life is held together by cocaine, or Loïc, a self-satisfied skinhead, is more than enough. The sheer lack of kindness or beauty in this book withers the reader’s heart. But the writing is energetic, delving, and occasionally lovely: “Vernon was in love. He was transformed into a little pack of marshmallows.” Plus, Despentes is telling it like it is: this is an accurate portrait of Paris in the late 2010s, an unstable and deeply divided city roiling with violent fantasies and financial anxiety.
Vernon, meanwhile, is a quiet, passive character, left behind by the technology shifts that buried Tower Records, unable to find a small square of midlife to settle down into. “His little bubble is snug. He can survive if he holds his breath.” Vernon slips into unemployment and homelessness through sheer inertia. He clings to his dignity by refusing mercy. After a few initial chapters of his own narration, his descent toward the streets is told largely at oblique angles, through different characters as they search for him or pass stories about him — a clever method. He offers an anonymous, undistinguished perspective while Paris fractures and seethes around him.He is the blank center around whom all the more interesting characters revolve.
It’s notable, though, that Vernon should be so neutral, when everyone else in the novel is so heavily invested in their perspectives: “They have no doubts about anything. They are perfectly aware that no one agrees about anything, something that might prompt them to wonder what to do in the face of so many contradictory views. Far from it—any challenge seems to reinforce their conviction that they are right.” Instead, Vernon “feels like a spent coal, like an ember quickened now and then by a gust of wind, but never quite enough to set the kindling ablaze. A dying fire.”
This, then, is what happens to devotees of a punk lifestyle who age without finding a stable place to land (even if that place is rage or greed): they fade away, sinking into passivity and poverty, selling off their priceless records on eBay. They must put up with the unbroken monologues of their unhappy friends, or with the instability of their benefactors, in order to live clean and well-fed. Again and again, the characters in this book point out how difficult it is to grow old, whether complaining about not bouncing back from hangovers so easily or explaining what women lose as they age: “One day the two of them will be ruins — something that was once sublime and is now no more than a pile of rubble.”
Paris, too, is aging, beyond its romance and its bohemian freedom and into something else. Despite the unpleasantness of this chronicle, Despentes has a sharp eye fixed on that transformation, and she transcribes it acutely.
Katharine Coldiron‘s work has appeared in Ms., the Guardian, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator.