It’s been a couple of years since I first encountered Virginie Despentes’ Parisian anti-hero Vernon Subutex, and after two books introducing the hapless couch surfer and then exploring the cult-like group that develops around him, the concluding part of the trilogy has finally made it into English, thanks (of course) to translator Frank Wynne. It’s time, then, to see how the story ends, but before we go any further, a few words of warning. If you haven’t read the first two books, you may want to look away now as there will probably be spoilers aplenty in the review, and nobody wants their reading experience ruined, do they?
Still with me? Then it’s off to France we go 😉
Vernon Subutex Three (review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) picks up shortly after Part Two left off, with Vernon and his followers/friends living a peaceful existence far away from Paris. With Aïcha and Céleste elsewhere, safely out of harm’s reach, the gang focuses on the legendary convergences, where Vernon’s playlists (with the assistance of Alex Bleach’s strange rhythms) have made him into an urban myth, a legend whose name is whispered on the breeze wherever music lovers gather.
Alas, nothing lasts forever, and trouble is approaching from several directions. A chance trip to the capital brings surprising news that is to splinter the group, and while Laurent Dopalet has retired to his apartment to lick his wounds, he certainly hasn’t given up on his dreams of revenge. Meanwhile, there are reminders that there’s far more to the story than just Vernon and his friends. Back in Paris, the society the novel describes has reached a tipping point, and as we roll into 2015, fiction collides with history in a sickening manner…
It’s been a long wait for the end of the story, and an excellent finale it proves to be, even if it’s probably not quite what I was expecting. The beauty of Vernon Subutex 3 lies in how Despentes continues to balance her story of a man starting a new life (with the help of a few friends) and that of a society falling apart in the background. Yes, we catch up with Vernon and the gang, with the familiar format of lengthy chapters each following a certain character, and some of these sections involve new faces who are to prove pivotal to the story. However, this is the France of 2015, and given the themes covered in the novel, it’s inevitable that real life will intrude, with the author examining the effect major societal events have on her protagonists.
The first half of the book sees the happy commune that developed in the last part fall to pieces. The catalyst for this is the sudden prospect of money, left to the group after the death of Charles, the ageing alcoholic who found Vernon in the park at the start of the second book. However, the seeds of this disintegration were sown long before, and it’s almost as if Vernon has been waiting for this moment to leave his safe haven (and his new calling as DJ/cult leader) behind. As he’s to discover, though, it isn’t quite that easy:
In the train stations and the airports, he travels with his ghosts. He can throw away photographs, dispose of things, cast off old clothes – still his former lives are entwined with the present, and he can hear his roots shriek, refusing to be sacrificed. They throb, connected, ripped from the fields of consciousness. His past is becoming an encumbrance.
p.173 (MacLehose Press, 2020)
As much as he might try to move on, there’s always a feeling that this is merely a hiatus, and that he’ll inevitably be drawn back to the strange extended family that has grown around him over the past few years.
Meanwhile, Laurent Dopalet’s desire for revenge, which is very much in the background in the early chapters, takes concrete form, thanks mainly to a new character, Max, the former manager of Alex Bleach. With Dopalet’s attackers having fled the country, tracking them down will take persistence and luck, and this is where Max comes in. Ever the opportunist, as he tries to worm his way into Dopalet’s confidence, he sees an opportunity to not only get revenge on Bleach but also to make a quick buck for himself. It’s only when he starts to make headway with his mission, that he realises what the task entails, and just how far he’ll need to go if he wants to make Dopalet happy.
Though Vernon Subtex Three makes for an excellent conclusion to the story for the most part, one minor issue I had with the book was the pacing. Rereading the second part of the trilogy, I noticed Despentes’ tendency to dump long chapters just after pivotal moments, which, while probably deliberate, did disrupt the rhythm of the story at times. This was the case again here, and with the Dopalet plot taking its sweet time to get moving, I’m sure I won’t be the only reader getting a little impatient with the writer.
It’s certainly worth the wait, though, and perhaps more fascinating than the novel itself is the background it was written against. Vernon Subutex is a novel of contemporary society, The Way We Live Now, if you will, and by now we mean 21st-century France. This part mentions the Charlie Hebdo attack and the Bataclan massacre (which actually happened after the first two books had appeared), meaning Despentes’ work provides a timely look at a country that prides itself on its society as it buckles and bends under the weight of racial hatred and neo-capitalism, reflecting the fear its citizens now feel.
Yet as with any good book, its lessons aren’t confined to one place and time, and the discussions of austerity, neo-capitalism or belt-tightening (call it what you will) certainly sound familiar:
By dint of hearing it repeated ad nauseam, the harassment has had its effect – there is only one possible reality, in which big bosses are unfettered, there is only one possible future, laissez-faire capitalism. There is only one valid interpretation of the facts, the free market cannot be subjected to constraint, nothing must stop the richest from taking ever more, nothing must stop the powerful from treating the powerless like slaves. (p.297)
There’s an overwhelming sensation of helplessness, of living in a world where the best times are behind us. Vernon and the gang use music to escape the grim reality, probably correct in their belief that things actually *were* much better in the good old days (in the age of Trump, Brexit and COVID-19, most readers will probably agree…).
It all adds up to a great read, and yet, amazingly, Despentes has one last twist for the reader who has stayed the course for the thousand pages or so of her tale. You see, while I was fairly sure I knew how the story would end, the last thirty pages or so do exactly as I predicted, but in a way I could never have imagined. In a breathtaking move which I can only compare to the infamous War and Peace epilogue, the writer suddenly shifts and widens the focus of the story, taking an audacious gamble that could, quite frankly, have backfired badly. Yet it works, and these final pages, tying up the loose ends of the whole saga, take us back to the man at the heart of the story, and the effect he, and his music, had on the disillusioned souls who decided to put their faith in him – with good reason, as it turns out.
With all the reading and rereading, I spent a week in the company of Vernon and his friends this time around, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Despite its flaws (and who’s perfect, anyway?), Vernon Subutex is a wonderful story, reflecting the ugliness of modern life and reminding us of the beauty that’s still out there somewhere if we take the time to look for it. In Vernon’s own words:
He feels a joy that he can’t put into words, The outside world is collapsing. It is elegantly crumbling, breaking down, its forms disintegrating, not with a bang but a whimper. (p.315)
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and, well – how do you feel? A big thanks must go to Despentes and Wynne for bringing us this modern epic, which shows us that even if the world’s in a fairly shitty place, there’s always music to enjoy. And, as the extraordinary ending shows, you can’t stop the music – nobody can stop the music 😉