Having spent some time in the rain forests of south-east Asia, today sees us heading off to the urban jungle as our Man Booker International Prize longlist journey takes us back to Paris. The first part of an ambitious trilogy examining contemporary society, our latest choice is nevertheless focused on one man as he couch surfs his way across the city of lights, avoiding friends and foes alike. His name?
Vernon Subutex One by Virginie Despentes
– MacLehose Press, translated by Frank Wynne
(review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
Vernon Subutex, a forty-something former record-store owner, finds the door to his small apartment crashing open one day and is ordered to vacate the premises immediately. Having failed to pay his rent for months (and with no means of doing so now that his rich friend and patron, rock star Alexandre Bleach, has passed away), Vernon reluctantly slings a few things in his rucksack and slopes off into the Parisian streets. With several decades of hard living behind him, he has no shortage of contacts and soon slips comfortably into a routine of couch surfing around the French capital.
However, life’s no fun if you’re broke, so Subutex falls back on an idea that might make him some money. Before Alex’s suicide, Vernon made some recordings of his friend’s drug-addled musings, and he puts out feelers to see if anyone is interesting in taking them off his hands in exchange for some hard cash. Little does he know that there are people out there who are desperate to see what Alex’s final words are, and are prepared to go to great lengths to obtain the tapes – if only they can locate the elusive Monsieur Subutex…
Despente’s novel has all the hallmarks of a thriller, and the first couple of chapters certainly point in that direction. However, it doesn’t take long to realise that her ambitions run to far more than a simple knockabout romp on the streets of Paris. Vernon Subutex is the writer’s attempt to make sense of modern society by following the title character as he interacts with, beds and sponges off a formidable number of supporting characters, allowing us a panoramic view of a society that has changed, and not always (if we’re to trust Despentes) for the better.
Of course, Vernon himself is at the centre of it all, and in this first installment of a trilogy (hence the ‘One’ of the title), we get to spend a lot of time in his company. While several chapters are told through his eyes, it’s when the story moves on to other viewpoints that he comes into focus, with most people agreeing that he’s a likeable bloke:
Subutex has always been an easy-going kind of guy, standing behind the counter of his record shop with a permanent half-smile. A joker – not a loudmouth, but someone with quick wit. Someone who could find the funny side of any subject and milk it, a talented wordsmith. In a world of boys desperately competing in a pissing contest, Vernon always seemed quietly confident like he didn’t need to show off to prove that he was someone.
p.45 (MacLehose Press, 2017)
This easy-going, laid-back charm allows him to turn what might have been a worrying situation into a holiday of sorts, in which he catches up with old friends and sleeps with any that catch his eye. He certainly doesn’t act like he’s broke and homeless.
Slowly, though, this all changes. Vernon is a man of the past, and if there’s one thing the novel shows us it’s that the world is a rather different place today to the one of his heyday. The picture Despentes paints of Paris is that of a city shedding its bohemian image in favour of a new home of the middle-class and right-wing. With the rise of the importance of having wealth, and flaunting it, being poor is now a stigma, and when Vernon finally runs out of couches to crash on, you sense that he’s going to hit the ground hard.
It’s not just about the gulf between the rich and the poor, either. The writer hints on several occasions that the advantages of the digital age are accompanied by some disturbing drawbacks:
In his day, children were expected to become social animals, to learn empathy. To show sympathy when someone appeared to be sad, for example. If the subject was intelligent, he quickly learned that showing sympathy could pay off, especially if you wanted something from somebody. But then Facebook came along and this generation of thirty-somethings is made up of solipsistic psychopaths verging on insanity. (p.98)
For Vernon himself, Facebook turns out to be a mixed blessing. While it allows him to get in touch with possible sources of a bed for the night (or his next conquest), when things go wrong, it’s difficult to hide with his shortcomings broadcast across the internet 😉
While I enjoyed the novel immensely, not everyone has warmed to it. Several readers have been put off by the swearing and constant mentions of sex, but I was surprised to find that the language was nowhere near as graphic as I’d been led to believe. What is true is that sex, or the promise of sex, is ever-present, with most chapters revealing some serious pent-up sexual tension:
She dances for him, he ignores her, taunts her. This excites her. She likes guys of every kind. Every age, every build, every race, every creed, every means, and every temperament. She likes them all, but it is even better when they are immune to the way she sways her hip. She will have him. (p.207)
In fact, this dance before the act often proves to be the high point for the characters – on several occasions, the sex itself is a bit of a let down.
Perhaps a more justified criticism is of the pace of the novel. While the introduction of a whole cast of characters has its advantages, particularly in allowing us to see them both as they see themselves and through the eyes of others (on several occasions a puffed-up ego is cut down to size once we get an objective opinion), it does slow the story down. After 350 pages, there’s a feeling that we’ve only just scratched the surface: many of the characters have only made a first, cursory appearance, and we still haven’t really found out what is on the tapes (or whether they’re anything more than a red herring).
But that’s where it’s important to return to the title and glance meaningfully in the direction of the word ‘One’. This first part of the story is merely an introduction, bringing the characters on stage (the digital PR harpy, the anxious film executive, the former porn stars, the wife-battering friend, the bag lady) and setting the plot in motion. It’s not giving much away to say that by the end of this first installment, Vernon won’t be quite as happy-go-lucky as at the start of the novel, but it’s anyone’s guess as to whether his journey will continue towards the gutter or if he’ll be making a triumphant return in the next part…
…which MacLehose will be publishing in English later this year. I’ll certainly be keen to see how the story unfolds, and I’m sure I won’t be the only one 🙂
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
For me, Vernon Subutex One is certainly worth a place in the final six, an ambitious work that sets out its stall from the start. Unlike many so-called ‘trilogies’, which are merely a couple of sequels tacked on to a book that was surprisingly popular, Despentes’ novel is clearly designed as the introductory part of a greater whole. Like The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring or Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear, it’s a book that never pretends to be anything other than what it is, and it’s all the better for it.
Will it make the shortlist?
I’m honestly not sure as it’s a book that appears to have been rather divisive. It didn’t really do as much as you might have expected after publication (it appeared last year and seemed to sink without much of a trace in the blogosphere), and I’ve seen several rather negative reactions to the book since the longlisting. On the other hand, you sense that it may go down rather better with critics than casual readers (Eileen Battersby’s effusive comments in The Irish Times being Exhibit A for the defence here). In any case, I expect this one to be the basis for some pretty fiery discussion around the judges’ table – let’s hope it’s all resolved amicably…
Leaving Vernon to his adventures, we must move on to the next stage of our journey. We’ll be spending a few days on a small island off the Irish coast to prepare, before heading off to Tibet in search of some legendary, undiscovered mountains. I’m not going to lie to you – this will be a tough ascent. We’ll be dealing with freezing temperatures, altitude sickness and… flying sentences?
I’ll see you all at base camp 😉