Virginie Despentes: between Mimetic Exacerbation of Misogyny and the Novel of a New Radical Collectivity — Lydia Perović

Looking at Despentes’ books that have not been translated into English alongside those that have

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In her only work of non-fiction so far, the part-manifesto, part-memoir King Kong Theory, Virginie Despentes takes an unexpected stand in the chapter on rape. (Other chapters are on similarly light matters like porn, prostitution, and femininity as docility.) She recalls her own rape at the age of seventeen, during a hitchhiking trip with a friend, how she dealt with the memory of the event in the following years and how she developed political consciousness around it. It’s a righteously angry essay that covers the essentials: the invisibility, the underreporting, the long history, the imputation of female collaboration. It’s the rape of one of her friends, years after her own assault, that politicized her and made her realize the sexual nature of the crime—that it was used as a weapon in the war between the sexes. Books, however, could do nothing for her. “Prison, illness, abuse, drugs, abandonment, deportation: all traumas have their literature. But this crucial and fundamental trauma—the very definition of femininity, ‘the body that can be taken by force and must remain defenseless’—was not part of literature.”

But then, this moment. It’s 1990, young Despentes is on a train reading Spin magazine and she comes across a Camille Paglia article that initially makes her laugh. It’s about sweat and animal masculinity in American football.

This leads her, gradually, to the subject of rape. I have forgotten her exact words. But it was something like, “It is an inevitable danger, a danger that women need to take into account and run the risk of encountering, if they want to leave their homes and move around freely. If it happens to you, then pick yourself up, dust yourself down and move on. If that’s too scary for you, then you’d better stay at home with mommy and manicure your nails.” At first, I was disgusted. I felt sick with refusal. After a few moments, a sort of great interior calm, I was dumbfounded… Before heading toward the north of Paris to the gig, I called Caroline, that same friend, really excited. I had to tell her about this Italian American—and she had to read the article and tell me what she thought. It blew her mind, just as it had mine.[1]

For the first time, writes Despentes, a woman was “valuing the ability to get over it, instead of lying down obligingly in the anthology of trauma.” There was some previously unthought-of freedom in this playing things down—and the freedom in continuing to travel undeterred and unafraid, as she herself had after her rape. She had continued hitchhiking, travelling to live music gigs, sleeping over in train stations waiting for the first morning train. “Acting as if I wasn’t a girl… Those were the best years of my life, the richest, the noisiest, and I managed to find the strength to deal with all the shit that came with them.”

But Despentes is not making the argument that rape is no different than any other kind of physical assault. Developed best by Foucault some decades ago, the argument questions the specificity of genital crime against crime of violence over any other part of human body. The political consequence one hopes for is to eliminate even a possibility of the notion of sexual pollution and stigma that is sometimes placed upon women rape survivors. There is no feminine essence that the rape touches, the argument goes, no medals of chastity that get taken away. The non-consensual penetration does not in any radical way differ from being beaten up, a grope on the street is no different than a shove or a slap, catcalling no different than traffic rage insults, sexual blackmail no different from other kind of quid-pro-quo demands.

It’s a sound argument but may carry some unfortunate practical consequences, like the “What’s the big deal” response to sexual assault or harassment. Despentes is fully aware of this, of course, and writes that though having its advantages—“as soon as you name your rape a rape, the women-controlling mechanisms suddenly swing into action”—the strategy is short-sighted and may lead to the crime that took a long time to be named losing its name again.

Could we, then, liberate the victims from the psychological scars in the way Despentes is suggesting while not in any way diminishing the seriousness of the crime and keeping the rape specific, unforgivable, punishable by law? Can we do both, is this imaginable as a two-pronged plan? In Canada and the US we have been extremely good lately about detailing the trauma of non-consensual sex, and the unprocessable, ineffable horror of it are stated or implied in everything on the assault spectrum, from a professor sleeping with a student, to the catcalling on the street, to the subway gropes, to drunken sex, to intercourse rape. Are our wounds permanently bleeding, like Amfortas’ in Parsifal, and what redemptive act is capable of healing our wounds, dangerously coming close to being seen as permanent? We should keep in mind that we name the crime to be freer, not to be less free. Are we denying in advance any possibilities to ourselves because we perceive the rape culture now as inexorable?

Back to Despentes, however, who continues her essay by contemplating retaliation as the response to rape, in lieu of the permanent female scarring, and moves on to discuss the broader culture of femininity. She is puzzled that some of the women who’ve seen her slasher film Baise-moi wanted to point out to her that ‘violence is not the answer’. Still too many women see themselves as unequipped or even unwilling to respond to sexual and other kind of assault with any kind of violent resistance, she writes. “If men were to fear having their dicks slashed to pieces with a carpet knife should they try to force a woman, they would soon become much better at controlling their ‘masculine’ urges, and understanding that no means no.”

During that rape, I had a switchblade knife in the pocket of my red and white varsity jacket—a gleaming, black-handled, perfect action, long, thin blade, polished, shining, and sharp. A switchblade I used to pull out at the slightest provocation, in that muddled time. I was attached to it, in my own way. I had learned how to use it. That night, the blade stayed hidden in my pocket, and the only thought I had about it was, “Please don’t let them find it, please don’t let them decide to play with it.” I didn’t even think of using it. From the instant I realized what was happening, I was convinced they were the stronger ones… [A]t that precise moment I felt female, disgustingly female, in a way I had never felt, and have never felt since. Defending my own body did not allow me to injure a man…It was rape that turned me back into a woman, into someone essentially vulnerable.

The way we conceive of our bodies and the way we conceive of our body politic are bound together, and Despentes goes on to shows how the virile violent vs. the vulnerable feminine in need of protection work as the societal blue print.

By the end of this extraordinary essay of rage and truth-telling it’s not entirely sure that Despentes does manage to dust herself off even so many years after the rape—her feelings on the matter stated in interviews to the media vary as much as the tenor of the King Kong essay. “For twenty years now, every time I think I’m done with it, I come back to it again. With different, contradictory things to say about it. […] It is both that which disfigures me, and that which makes me.”

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Baise-moi, the book and the film, was more than a rape revenge slasher. It was Despentes’ early exploration of what it would look like if women took over the means of the production of violence, in this case by employing the vocabulary of works like Bonnie & Clyde, or the 1992 C’est arrivé près de chez vous, or any of the Tarantino films, and much of the cartoons and videogames. The manuscript, after being rejected by nine publishers, ended up being published as a sort of a punk samizdat by an ultra-alt one-man press Éditions Florent Massot, who according to a recent article in Le Monde distributed personally the book by bicycle to cafes, squats, concert venues, fanzine conventions. Despentes herself was part of the people hanging around the French punk band Bérurier Noir and their concerts. She also reviewed porno videos from home for a specialist magazine.

Written in a pared down, matter-of-fact, no-style style, Baise-moi follows two marginalized women who meet, connect and go on a rampage across small towns of France while committing robberies, picking up men for sex, and consuming drugs. Oh, and killing, of course: most of it is people—often men, but not only—being shot close range. The killings often look arbitrary, but would they be more acceptable if they were for a reason, dear reader. (Matias Énard’s 2008 Zone, for example, that some critics compared with the Iliad, is a posher, haute literature slasher where men kill for the nation, race or economic interest. The reader desensitization by the sheer quantity of murder is the same, however.)

One of the women is raped early in the book, but the connection with the subsequent violence is not necessarily causal. There is some method to their madness, however, that points in the direction of a class war, rather than a sex war. When a young friend tries to politicize Manu over police violence, she won’t have it. “The kid doesn’t get it, how the revolution is too far away from her hole to really interest her. Anyway, to get carried away like him you need a sense of sublimation and self-respect that Manu just doesn’t have.” (All Baise-moi quotes are in translation by Bruce Benderson, Grove Press NY.) Early on the rampage, the two kill a woman about to get some cash from the bank machine. The woman’s hair is “silky and fragrant” and she’s wearing a “well-cut suit”. A child and his grandmother get killed in an upscale tea shop. But primarily it’s the men who come in their way who are killed. (Some of them are fucked and spared.) It transpires later in the book that they would never shoot a person of Arabic origin of either gender.

In a rare moment of comedy, one of the girls, after the killing spree in an electronics store, complains about dialogues they’re producing. “Fuck, we haven’t got the formula right, haven’t got the right line for the right moment.” After Nadine replies that they can’t certainly rehearse the dialogue for the shooting occasions, Manu agrees. “Course not, it wouldn’t be ethical.”

And when the two find themselves in the apartment of an intellectual, Nadine falls for his sweet persuasive talk and almost decides against killing him after they’ve emptied the contents of his safe. He had let them inside when Nadine told him they were doing a survey about cultural consumption habits. “Suavely he asks, ‘What’s this about?’ It’s a serious voice, full of poise, and it immediately evokes things about sex in the shadows, very gentle, perversely delicate moments.” It’s Manu who kills him. It’s Manu who gets the final monologue too:

This guy’s really my favourite kind of victim. Buried in books, weighed down by CDs and videocassettes. It’s vile. Loves all the sick writers, accursed artists, degenerate whores… Likes his decadence arranged in alphabetic order. A good spectator, in good health. Knows how to appreciate the genius of others, from afar, you know. And of course with moderation. Sleeps well, conscience always clear.

There is some porn too in the book. Much more of it in the film, though (directed by Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi).

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The mastering of—the disguise into–the pornographic male position reappears in some of Despentes’ short stories collected in Mordre au travers (1999, Librio; all translations here are mine), each story a dark and puzzling gem. The book opens with “Je te veux pour moi” (“Be mine”) told by a drug dealer who lusts after a client’s live-in girlfriend. Each time he delivers he stays longer as his descriptions of her get more elaborate and fantasies explicit. She is set up as a perfect literary porn ingénue, as naive, sensuous, friendly, willing, blank and biography-less but most of all as susceptible to the looker/writer’s will as any of the passive de Sade heroines awaiting corruption. Her summer dress is strategically unbuttoned, and so short its description will inevitably slide into the oral sex fantasy.

The dealer’s first-person account of their meetings is both arousing and ruthlessly objectifying, and it turns graphic when the two finally have sex. “I was allowed everything,” we are told. Together with the narrator, the reader too penetrates her and is being sucked by her, so unmediated and unconcerned is the narration. “…I was hard again and wanted to be inside her because I knew that it was burning hot inside her like in hell and when I finally was it was hotter than I ever imagined.” The two develop a liaison parallel to the woman’s other partnership, until the dealer begins insisting that they should be together exclusively. The woman meekly protests, arguing that there is nothing wrong with the current set up, but the man is adamant. She eventually agrees to end it with her boyfriend. All this is told in the same unfussy and mildly turned-on tone as the preceding paragraphs. Next time the dealer rings the bell to their apartment, it is the client who opens and lets him in. He is unusually calm and takes him to the bedroom.

“She told me everything this evening, like you asked her to. I knew you fucked her, but I didn’t think she would leave me. I couldn’t.”
He signalled the bedroom with his head.
I stood there, not getting it.
I opened the door. She was on the bed. He remained seated, terrifyingly calm. He added:
“You have no idea what she meant to me.”
He had strangled her.

I left.
Out on the street, I thought of something that happened when I was a child. My mother had thrown this incredible tommy gun that my brother and I fought over. “There. Now neither of you will have it and you can finally give me a break.”

End of story. And you feel very dirty, easily manipulable and perhaps a little mocked too. What did you expect, a happily ever after? Was the woman ever a proper character, rather than a cipher? A protagonist instead of a means of communication between two men? A spectacle for the reader? She might as well go at the end—she was never really there.

In another story in similar vein, “Lâcher l’affaire” (“Ending the matter”) a man tells his wife he’ll be away on business before he leaves town to meet his mistress. En route, he realizes he doesn’t desire his mistress any longer and leaves the train one stop earlier. The story opens with him sitting in a bar near the train station in an unknown town, contemplating life, lamenting the many things that hinder him, his wife, his mistress, his job. He spots a woman sitting at a table across the room. He notices her breasts, heavy and rising with breath, her white skin, her generous body, long hair, tired eyes, then breasts again. He is seized by the desire to come between her breasts, to grab her thighs, bite her, fuck her. A violent fantasy is not far behind: he wishes to punch her, smash her face, cover her white skin in bruises. The rage flares up then subsides, he is overcome by sadness. He continues to look at her, and she lets him. He goes over, offers drink. She is sweet of temper, her big weary eyes are kind. He sits down, starts talking. And she listens. He talks about everything that ails him, she takes it all in. He talks and talks and can’t stop talking. They go to bed and she is equally reassuring and welcoming there. He wakes up in the morning relieved and recharged. He dresses, and she says she would like to stay in bed a while longer. They say goodbyes, wishing each other good luck.  With “her big reassuring eyes, loving and available”, she sees him out. Downstairs at the reception, he phones the mistress to tell her he loves her, then phones his work to check if everything was all right.

And everything was all right.
Things returned to him,
one by one, intact.
It was just a low moment. He felt better.
Recalling the previous night, the loving woman, he regretted that he didn’t ask for her number. To be able to call her and thank her again, maybe see her again.

But he hears a cleaner screaming upstairs and runs back up. The door to their room is wide open, the woman has hanged herself. “Her big eyes open and empty. Her body naked and heavy.”

Another cipher female created for the purposes of male narration that films, novels and operas abounds in. And that remain conveniently mysterious, perhaps unknowable. It’s a complex text, however—Despentes is particularly good about the violent surge of desire, and this theatre of desire is often given to male characters in her books, the scum of the earth and the cool dudes both. (The lesbian private investigator The Hyena and the rock critic Lydia Bazooka in Apocalypse Baby and Vernon Subutex 1 respectively are the exceptions.)

There is, to echo Kristeva, a kind of violence in desiring somebody, in declaring oneself, in making the first move—not literal violence, but narrative if you will, an existing script is being torn through and another emerges, a sudden intimacy, an encroachment upon a territory. Sex itself is a further danger. It is a disintegration of an isolated self that is sometimes managed and bearable and other times anything but.

There is a deep understanding of this in Despentes’s work, and a certain weary compassion for those who are transversed by the sexual. The most ambivalent piece in the collection is the poem-like “Comme une bombe” that begins in a recognizable poetico-porn style—a woman is observed by a neighbour from the window across–but expands into an almost mythological telling of an erotic disintegration, monstrosity, becoming-animal. There is violence involved, but none of this is written in the ‘realist’ register and it’s impossible to read it as literal violence. Or is it? There is very little like it in English-speaking fiction; except perhaps the gory pan-sexual eroticism of Lidia Yuknavitch’s Small Backs of Children and May-Lan Tan’s “Julia K.” in Things to Make and Break, a story of an erotic crucifixion and transcending the self from the position of a kind of supernatural masochism.

There are less equivocal, more clearly political and angry stories in the collection, though. Nowhere does Despentes marry the porn gaze and violent misogyny so unequivocally as in “Fils à papa”, with the first-person narrator secreting the inner monologue of loathing for the sweet young woman who let herself be picked up by him at the bar. She takes him home and after she agrees to be tied for a sex game, he proceeds to torture her. In “Blue Eyed Devil” we are with a nervous young man who is trying to enter a busy shopping centre without setting off the metal detectors. Political anger is entangled in private desires in complicated ways: while he’s walking from floor to floor among the shoppers and firming himself for the act, (“I have nothing to do with you. I don’t like you. I don’t know how to be among you”), he runs into a female acquaintance and gets treated to her verve and kindness. They get into a conversation, she flirts, she makes him listen to a jazz piece in the disc department. He doesn’t really understand jazz, but enjoys looking at her looking at him while he’s listening. (“She probably listened to jazz growing up. It’s music for the rich, people with taste. Not the dirt-poor, not the shameful. This is a girl who’s never known shame.”) His determination is shaken—is the guy up on high throwing temptations his way, he wonders—until she starts talking about a man she’s seeing. The narrator is rudely sobered up, excuses himself and walks away. He is tucked back into his worldview. The people around him, they’ve all spit in his face like this girl, treated him like he’s nothing, while seeming blissfully unaware that they’re doing it. “He won’t die alone. The innocent little one with pretty eyes, he’ll show her in one go what the world he’s living in is like.”

This story shares with “Balade” (“A Ramble”) and “Domina” a close-range look into how poverty feels, what it makes of a person, what if feels like on the body. Despentes writing is in many ways a phenomenology of poverty – she often puts us inside the person running into impregnable walls, being diminished. In “Domina”, a woman living with her destitute lover finally decides to go back to turning tricks so they could eat something else beside potatoes. Her client turns out to be a well-off man with a grand apartment—the return of the figure of an intellectual (therefore always already bourgeois) man, perhaps an archetype, that also appears in Baise-moi, as the well-established writer in Apocalypse Baby, and the husband in Despentes’ film Bye Bye Blondie. This one shows her his S/M arsenal, explains what he’s interested in and they start. While she’s observing him licking her boots, his “pink little dick size of a poodle’s” getting erect, she’s losing interest and getting angry. There are any number of powerful men in this town, she is thinking, to whom 1000 francs mean nothing but who will give them to you only if you play the game they like. Things gets heated—she kicks him in his teeth, refuses to untie him and after a good yell (“It excites you to play a slave, one hour a week works for you? I’m a slave full-time, not that it particularly excites me, not that anybody asks me my opinion…”) goes away, leaving the door wide open. She doesn’t say anything to her fiancé; that one night they eat a good dinner.

In “Balade”, a master class in sad comedy, a woman finds out that by some banking deposit glitch her social assistance is one day late. Off starts an almost picaresque tale on how a day can be passed while completely skint and fighting against sadness and anger. She asks the bakery owner in her building if she can take some bread on credit (the answer is no), joins some friends she spots in a restaurant patio (until she is asked by the waiter to leave or order something—the chairs outside are for paying customers). During her walk, a car slows down and a man, who looks cordial, reminds her of her uncle, asks her to join him for drinks and dinner and a drive. She sits in the back (“I have nothing else to do today anyway”) and is handed a bottle of whisky. She drinks, observes Paris from the car as he drives around, a rare opportunity. He says he is in Paris only for a few days—he is from the south. At a secluded parking lot, a blowjob is exchanged for a promise of money and a lavish dinner. She is self-medicated on whiskey and indifferent at the unfolding of events, and they drive around some more. He stops near a restaurant and asks her to go out and check if they have a table for two available. As soon as she steps out, he drives away. She is too tired to get upset. “I know I should have asked for the money in advance” is a blip. All she can think of is going home to sleep. Money will be on her account tomorrow. It was a shite day, but at least it’s over.

The story “Sale grosse truie” (“Dirty Fat Sow”) is its own category. A woman marries a man she loves, but soon after she notices that she is getting older, uglier and fatter and realizes that he has every right to have affairs with younger, prettier women. At one particular dinner, overcome by self-loathing and shame, she leaves him to continue flirting with the young waitress and goes home. She strips, takes a knife and starts cutting off the fat parts of her, her stomach, her thighs. If he comes back looking for her now, he will save her, are her final thoughts. But he returns home late next morning.

The tone of the story, the narration POV is the woman’s self-hatred, its every aspect brought out to the light. It has its own internal logic that is irresistible and that almost disables any possibility of compassion towards the woman. Almost. The reader will find herself veering between “she is to blame for her predicament, she chooses it” and “she never stood a chance, her consciousness is colonized by misogyny to the degree that autonomy is impossible”. It’s an uneasy line to find oneself treading. Some of the stories in Patricia Highsmith’s Little Tales of Misogyny are written in the similar vein, as a voicing of the misogyny and its mythological, high- and low-cultural, blatant and invisible arsenal. In Little Tales, there’s a female novelist who’s incapable of invention and writes to whine about her husband’s betrayals, a coquette whose two among many of her ardent lovers end up killing her to help each other, a woman who fakes an injury and chooses to stay permanently bed-ridden in order to keep her husband, a silent mother-in-law who meets a noisy death, a woman trying all the arts equally ineptly, etc. It’s not an easy collection to read, and Highsmith is more frequently on the side of the condemnation for woman’s own helplessness and the mockery of the willing victims rather than the side of compassion towards the inculcated.

Elfriede Jelinek is another writer who explores this register. I had to abandon Lust (English translation by Michael Hulse) as much too loathsome and sadistic towards its dim female protagonist, a wife of the rural traditional Austria, but Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher (translation by Joachim Neugroschel) is a masterpiece. Tomes can be written about the narrative tone of the book only. If I was to concretize it, I would say that the life and trials of  the protagonist Erika Kohut are being narrated by her own misogynist era, here nationally delineated and planted in a particular cultural corner (classical music, university teaching), and saturated by the media-speak. We witness a woman being moulded before our reading eyes and again it’s not very pleasant, but The Piano Teacher reveals the workings of sadism of a culture and a family structure in the way that connects the reader with the protagonist, provokes outrage and desperation, instead of voyeurism or indifference.

Art theorist and critic Hal Foster wrote in Prosthetic Gods about ‘mimetic exacerbation’ of authoritarianism and masculinity as a method of the early twentieth-century art avant-garde. When embracing of an identity, a belonging, a worldview is over-eager without fail and followed along a very literal chain to its consequences, we are in the sphere of the mimesis gone too far—a mimesis that undermines. If we steal the concept in order to test it across culture, we may find it applicable in some of contemporary comedy (early Sarah Silverman was a mimetic exacerbation of a New York princess? Steve Coogan in The Trip and Tristram Shandy a mimetic exacerbation of his own celebrity?) and visual/media art (Carey Young’s office-related work exacerbates management and communications practices; Suzy Lake and Cindy Sherman exacerbate femininity). I would argue that in contemporary literature Despentes in many of her writings and Jelinek of The Piano Teacher write the mimetic exacerbation of misogyny – what it would sound like if it were to speak openly, unpolluted by this or that ad hoc concession towards the idea of  the equal value of genders that individual men may harbour.

One question, however, persists: should women play at this? There is plenty of literary misogyny to go around as it is, why mimetically exacerbate it to expose it? Can this turn us into more critical readers of other texts?

There is a risk of failure—Little Tales of Misogyny is salvaged and made complicated by its title, but had the title not contained the M word, they would have conceivably be read straight, if heightened, slightly absurd yet just enough realist stories about silly women who meet inglorious ends. Or a feminist reader may decided to abandon Jelinek’s Lust as too unbearable—and an anti-feminist who’s never heard of Jelinek’s feminism may read it literally. I don’t have a reassuring answer. What I can say is that in writing like “Sale grosse truie” and The Piano Teacher you can feel a centuries-old discourse crumbling under its own engineering. It’s quite a sight to behold.

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I leave the most fun for last. And when I say fun, I mean Vernon Subutex, Volumes 1 and 2 of the intended trilogy that were published in France in 2015 (translations here are mine). It’s Virginie Despentes doing the thick social novel—something we haven’t witnessed before—with a couple of dozen central characters told in a satirical and uncompromising but also compassionate tone. The free indirect style narration moves from one character to another and though the title character is central, he is thoroughly refracted, seen though other people and only occasionally given his own chapter. Otherwise, the novel is a polyphony, a chorus of discordant voices from Paris’ creative classes, the vast and varied precariat and some of its rulers thrown in the mix.

The book opens with Vernon at home he is about to lose for good. He is a former disc store owner who has been trying and failing to eke out a living since the business failed. We dive into his mind and past with the Despentes-ian generosity that was already in evidence in Apocalypse Baby but surpasses it. While he’s being evicted, he manages to toss in the bag the tapes he’s never bothered listening but might be able to sell online—a star crooner who’s an old friend had taped a self-interview while being drugged out of his mind during a visit to Vernon’s apartment. The tapes become something of a red herring later in the book, as some of the characters hear of their existence and try to get hold–Laurent Dopalet, for example, a paranoid script commissioning executive who presumes the singer, an old enemy, had badmouthed him in the confessional recordings. Black singer who’s consciously gone mainstream pop and hasn’t written a good song in years is given the name of Alex Bleach, and his life story of a great talent lost at the altar of celebrity is the source of various narrative side-threads as Vernon moves from one friend to another.

He is first billeted by Emilie, a former bass guitar player in an all-male band. She’s since said goodbye to rock-n-roll, a world where as a woman she never felt welcome, and is a nine-to-fiver and very much into keeping her apartment clean and tidy. Then Vernon moves on to dog sit at Xavier’s apartment while he’s away with his well-off wife and children. They manage to have a drink the night before, and Xavier gets a long monological whinge of a frustrated script writer whose brilliance the world doesn’t get while the mediocre prosper. He’s also very right-wing, and we get to experience the xenophobic, homophobic outlook from the inside. (All this is very funny, too.)

We leave Vernon entirely aside as the first person indirect is given over to the executive producer Laurent Dopalet who is about to meet a film director for lunch. He doesn’t want to, particularly, but she is a lover of an important man in the industry so he can do the bare minimum in order to avoid offense. He knows what she’ll bore him with—her advocacy for women directors, the injustice of it, patati-patata—and he’s getting ready to tune out.

The Hyena, the trickster figure of a lesbian private investigator introduced in Apocalypse Baby, resurfaces in Vernon as Dopalet decides to hire her to track down the whereabouts of Vernon’s tapes (last mentioned as Vernon was leaving them with Emilie as the guarantee that he would return the laptop he was borrowing). The Hyena is now in the business of destroying reputations via the internet. “Launching an online lynching is easier than spreading positive buzz… Three raving comments on the pilot of a show, and the online readers turn suspicious and smell PR manipulation; 30 delirious posts of hostile criticism, and it never occurs to anybody that they might be fake.”

On his trajectory from home to home, on this very urban picaresque, Vernon sleeps with various women, picks up and is himself picked up. He sometimes cooks and DJs for the hosts, they sometime tell him things they’ve never admitted to anybody. We get to meet two very different and equally complex trans characters, one of whom, the stunning Brazilian Marcia, breaks Vernon’s heart. (“…I was myself surprised, but it became evident to me: pussy doesn’t matter. It’s not about the pussy. Pussy doesn’t make a woman”, Vernon tells Patrice, his next host. “She was the most beautiful woman that I’ve ever been with, most feminine, most elegant…”) In a side narrative pushed forward by the Hyena, we meet a secular Muslim university teacher who believed in the dream of the Republic of France for all, but found out the Republic’s arms are not as wide-opened. And we meet his daughter who is turning to Islam.

The final chapters in Volume 1 follows Vernon’s early days of living on the street, his companion homeless woman Olga (Despentes gives a chapter to her and her worldview) who mentors him on the best begging practises and, when she can, protects him from the rambling groups of teenagers who count among their activities beating up the homeless. (One of the right wing teenagers gets his own chapter—a working-class kid with a job in a shopping mall H&M hanging with much the same type of kids. Again, the polyphony of the novel is uncompromising.)

In Volume 2, the disparate individuals of the Volume 1 form a ragtag group that first looks for Vernon and after they find him, continue to meet around him in the park Buttes-Chaumont and the café Rosa Bonheur—both actual places in Paris’ nineteenth arrondissement–where he is often asked to DJ. He refuses to leave the life of homelessness, and his mind is either in the extremely relaxed or delirious state. Either way, he feels one with everything around him. Despentes slowly spins out connections between the characters, as if testing out if the group of people who have very little in common except their precariousness and vulnerability can come together. For a cause or action? It’s too early to say. Some critics in France have suggested that Despentes may be in the process of creating a French Indignados novel—perhaps inspired by the recent mobilization and electoral successes by the Indignados in her other home town, Barcelona. For now, the group is managing to form around the far niente, listening to the music, and dancing. The last chapter of Volume 2 leaves them all in Corsica (Vernon doesn’t like the beach, he prefers the city, but the crowd wanted to go there next so who’s he to argue). A dance party in total darkness and completely off line, no phones, no cameras, is about to start. The crowd has grown considerably since the original uneasy alliance of the protagonists. Hints of formation of a new radical collectivity? This is exactly what the contemporary social novel should be doing.


[1] King Kong théorie, (Grasset, 2006) was published in English by Feminist Press in 2010 as King Kong Theory in the translation by Stephanie Benson. All quotes are from that edition.

Lydia Perovic has written for Opera Canada, The Believer, The Awl, The Globe and Mail, DailyXtra, and n+1, among others. Her new book is the novella All That Sang (Vehicule Press, 2016). Her first novel Incidental Music was a Lambda Literary Foundation finalist for Debut Fiction in 2013.

Image: Virginie Despentes, Frédéric Bisson, Creative Commons