The plot is wild enough but the novel’s 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.
Something of the original concept has been mislaid as this epic eulogy to the power of pop has gone on. The “lost tapes” of the rock musician Alex Bleach, so vital to the first novel, have been pretty much forgotten. Still, we’re here not for the story, but for the novel’s bracing take on contemporary life, and it is stuffed with vital, angry characters with opinions on everything: “puritanism imposed by feminists”; digital magazines; eating habits; education; “limousine liberals”; even terrorists who are “f***ing useless when it comes to attacking the people who are really screwing up the world”.
Despentes is the kind of novelist who unabashedly lets her political convictions show in her work, and Subutex’s convergences are her effort at imagining a collective space that fulfils the utopian promise contained in the rock music she and her characters revere (Lemmy from Motörhead gets a two-page elegy, and we are never far from a mention of Bowie, Nirvana or Leonard Cohen). The problem is that these rock’n’roll raves are woefully underimagined, and come across as a bathetic travesty of resistance. It’s one problem among many in this sagging, unkempt novel.
Despentes’ achievement is French realism rebooted: a modern-day Comédie humaine stacked with profanity and fury. It’s often deeply uncomfortable reading — that’s the point. Yet the unexpected friendships and sense of mutual concern within this wildly disparate group offer just enough hope for you to hang in there. Just don’t expect Despentes to give you a happily ever after.
Despentes is up here now, with the successful makers and life-shapers, not down there, and she’s not pretending otherwise. Her success is well deserved, and she has already channelled it through a touch of Horatian irony. Horace meets Kathy Acker: very Despentes.
Vernon’s crowd are snappy, funny, loquacious, quick, brutal, thinkers, street philosophers, and so Vernon, although given top billing, accounts for only one individual in the equivalent of an ensemble film. We move in and out of the speech styles and worldviews of this kaleidoscopic crew, through third-person free indirect thought and embedded dialogue. Frank Wynne’s flexible, fine translation means this happens in a manner that is thrilling and exhilarating to read, whether it’s hipster slang, dispassionate staccato or slow, misanthropic bitterness.