One of the more divisive titles on this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist was Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex One, the story of modern French life as seen by a man who finds himself homeless. While it made the official shortlist, our shadow panel disagreed, and there were many readers online with rather strong views about the novel. However, despite its flaws, I enjoyed it immensely, all the more so for knowing that it was merely the first part in a planned trilogy, and today I’ll be looking at how the second installment held up.
A couple of gentle warnings before we begin. Firstly, this review may contain plot details from the first book. Perhaps more importantly, if you haven’t read the first part, little of this will make any sense. All clear? Then, let’s begin 😉
Vernon Subutex Two (translated by Frank Wynne, review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) picks up just after the end of the first part, with our eponymous anti-hero sleeping rough in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, recovering from an illness brought on by the strains of life on the street. It’s here that the various factions on his trail manage to track him down, with a coming together of an unusual mix of people: the homeless Olga and Laurent; former friends Patrice and Xavier; old flames Sylvie and Émilie; porn star Pamela Kant; and (most surprisingly) the one-woman social-media wrecking ball, the Hyena, who has changed sides. Once Vernon has been cleaned up, the group gets together for a momentous occasion. It’s time to watch the tapes and see what Alex Bleach actually said in his ‘last will and testament’.
For the most part, the self-interview is as tedious as the group had expected, but in the final part, Bleach talks about his former girlfriend, Vodka Satana, naming film producer Laurent Dopalet as the man responsible for her death. Once the shock wears off, the group (including Satana’s daughter, Aïcha) begins to plan a campaign to destroy Dopalet, mentally and physically. But can a small group of outsiders really take down a man with virtually unlimited wealth and a host of shadowy connections? Paris might not be big enough to cover their tracks.
If you liked the first part of the story, you’ll probably enjoy Vernon Subutex Two as well. It features the same dizzying blend of back stories and madcap adventures in the streets (and parks) of the French capital, but where the previous book had us constantly on the move in the hunt for Vernon and the tapes, this one slows the pace down somewhat. For much of the book, the ‘action’ takes place in the park, with a random collection of ill-matched disciples chilling out with our old (homeless) friend and wondering what to do next. The need for revenge is clear – how to go about it is another matter.
The themes introduced in the first part continue here, and the underlying concept of the series continues to be an examination of contemporary French society. Class warfare seems to be one of the main sticking points, with stark differences between the generations (the older members of the group show far more disdain for the managerial classes of the modern world). However, most of the characters share Sélim’s conviction of a country in decline:
He loved this country madly. His school, the spotless streets, the railway network, the preposterous spelling, the vineyards, the philosophers, the literature, the institutions. But all around, the French no longer live in the France he so loved. They are suffering.
pp.138/9 (MacLehose Press, 2018)
I have to say, watching from afar, it all sounds very much like what I read about the UK in the media (well, apart from the philosophers, of course…).
Part of Despentes’ success comes from the way she mixes her cast. Many writers would be tempted to push one view, a personal agenda, but Vernon Subutex brings together a whole host of differing ideologies. The characters may be joined in their belief that modern life is rubbish, but when it comes to the causes, and what should be done about it, it’s a very different story. The beauty of the group coalescing around Vernon is that it brings together tree-hugging left-wingers and right-wing bullies, jaded activists and young people born into the precariat. It seems that political ideology is far less important than a shared animosity towards those screwing them over.
Once again, large passages of the book are devoted to introducing new characters, with the writer providing each of them with their own story and fleshing out their background. There are several new characters, such as Charles, a scruffy slob who is secretly a lottery millionaire, and more on old friends. For example, there’s a longer section telling us more about Aïcha’s father Sélim, the academic whose life has been crushed by his wife’s ‘betrayal’. Again, one of the strengths of the book is the multiple views Despentes provides, with her creations present both as subjects and objects. For example, we see the aggressive, arrogant Patrice through Emily’s eyes, before the tables are swiftly turned:
He also quickly realised that she had changed: these days, she bitched about everything. It was like she spent her whole life making a list of all the people who’d been mean to her, even though she seemed to find it difficult to be kind to anyone. Patrice feels ambivalent, he wants to tell her to go fuck herself, but he feels guilty because he knows that deep down she’s a nice girl who could never catch a break. Particularly when it came to guys. And he feels responsible – it’s because of guys like him that girls who are basically thoughtful and kind turned into harpies. (p.61)
The readers are kept on their toes – it’s important to take each claim with a pinch of salt… However, these sections are also where Despentes treads a rather fine line between advancing the main narrative and shading in the blanks. On the whole it works, but there are places where you may wish the story was moving along a little more quickly.
But what about Vernon? Found virtually catatonic after illness, he may be at the centre of the affair, yet for much of the book, he’s strangely passive. One thing he’s sure of, though, is that he doesn’t want to go back to his old life:
To his own surprise, and without a flicker of hesitation, Vernon declined all the offers. It was difficult to justify. He had said” “Don’t worry, I don’t want to be a burden, honestly, it doesn’t bother me sleeping out of doors.” They look at him as though he were insane. Normal. He would have done the same in their shoes. The real truth was that, physically, he could no longer tolerate floors and ceilings, he found it difficult to breathe, every object was hostile, he was plagued by a noxious vibration. (p.153)
As he recovers, though, he undergoes a transformation, and his undeniable charisma leads to his becoming the focus of a quasi-cult, with a group of followers surrounding him in the park every day. While not everyone goes as far as to drop out, you sense that they’ve also had enough of the world around them. The drinking sessions in the open air and Vernon’s occasional DJ sets in the local pub make for an idyllic oasis outside society.
But life never stays still for long, and you sense that Vernon Subutex Two is very much the calm before the storm. While the book ends happily enough, with Vernon’s group of friends continuing their merry, hedonistic way, there are signs of an impending storm. A brutal attack on one of the characters has already soured the mood, and though Dopalet appears to be on the back foot, you suspect that in a war between middle-aged anarchists and a ruthless capitalist, there can only be one winner:
“Stop deluding yourselves. This whole world is fucked. The world we knew. All this stuff you’re talking about, it’s already over. The retards frolicking in the meadows demanding the return of the Latin Mass, the stoning of prostitutes and the reinstatement of military service… it’s all long gone. They’re clinging to a world that’s disappeared. Stop pretending that things were better yesterday and they’ll be worse tomorrow. This is the intermission. Make the most of it. Everything starts again tomorrow.” (p.328)
But who will come out on top when the sun rises again? Well, that’s something to be resolved in Vernon Subutex Three, and I, for one, can’t wait to find out how the story ends.