The state-of-the-nation novel was, for a long time, unfashionable. With its ensemble casts, Olympian perspectives and moralizing tone, the genre popularized by Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope was dismissed as quintessentially Victorian: stentorian, sentimental, chauvinistic. Yet, there has recently been an unlikely revival of the panoramic treatment of society, which was dismissed by 20th-century vanguard writers such as B.S. Johnson as ‘anachronistic, invalid, irrelevant’. Nicola Barker, Will Self and Ali Smith, among others, have sought to update the genre, reconciling its capacity for social commentary with contemporary literary techniques. In 2012, the critic Alex Preston proposed that the renaissance of the genre might be ascribed to the return of the social conditions it was originally designed to critique, characterized by vast inequalities, migrant workers and financial crises. As we look to the past to find precedents for our current political predicament, so writers are looking backwards to find forms to explain the drastic ideological shifts of the past decade and their consequences.
The recent work of novelist, essayist and filmmaker Virginie Despentes suggests that the trend has extended to France, where literary culture had, with the notable, if divisive, exception of Michel Houellebecq, moved even further away from the legacy of Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac. Her trilogy ‘Vernon Subutex’ (published in French between 2015 and 2017, with an English translation by Frank Wynne of the first book released in July by MacLehose Press) is an exhilarating account of 21st-century Paris told through the interlinked stories of a ragged band of losers, outcasts and misfits. A state-of-the-nation written from the bottom up, in fragments threaded lightly together, it constitutes a sprawling portrait of a society at once deeply divided and inextricably linked.
Despentes adopts a shifting narrative perspective – sometimes close to her characters, sometimes distant – that more closely recalls the experiments of modernism than the mimetic ‘realism’ associated with Dickens. Adopting many voices but no single style, she presents a Paris littered with the broken syntax of those left behind: the creole of the dispossessed, the violent shouts of the ignored. In King Kong Théorie (King Kong Theory, 2006), a mongrel memoir and manifesto, she explains that her style speaks for ‘the ugly ones: the old hags, the dykes, the frigid, the unfucked, the unfuckables, the neurotics, the psychos, for all those girls that don’t get a look in the universal market of the consumable chick’, the ‘left-overs’, the ‘weirdos’, the ‘women who don’t behave’.
That Despentes does not care for mainstream endorsement has been clear since her bestselling debut novel, Baise-moi (Fuck Me, 1993), a revenge fantasy in which two women rape and kill men. When she adapted the novel into a film in 2000 with the Vietnamese-American actress Coralie Trinh Thi – also her co-director – it sparked walkouts at the Cannes Film Festival, forced a change in the French film classification system and became one of the most talked about French cultural events in decades.
You could be forgiven for thinking that Despentes does not imagine men among her literary constituents when, addressing women in the first person and men in the second, she states in King Kong Théorie: ‘You can all go and get fucked.’ Yet, she makes a distinction that illuminates a politics at once confrontational and encompassing, recognizing that if, as Simone de Beauvoir argues, the ‘true’ woman is a political construct, then so is the ‘true’ man. It is this fiction of the ‘true’ man that she despises, as well as those who, falling victim to the fallacy, ‘whine about how hard it is to be a guy around emancipated women’. Feminism is conceived as ‘a collective adventure, for women, men and everyone else’, and men are excluded from it only if they fall into the chauvinist trap that seeks to dictate how we all behave.
Despentes’s blunt response to the rhetorical question of whether she would prefer to be a man – ‘I am better than that’ – is less a statement of hostility towards men than an expression of pan-gender solidarity with those who resist prescriptive ideas of masculinity, femininity and any other cultural construct used to reinforce repressive systems of power. She resists any identity other than that which she has crafted for herself because, as far as she can tell, ‘being Virginie Despentes is a more interesting business than anything else going on out there’. ‘Despentes’ is a pseudonym derived from the Jardin des Pentes in Lyon where she once sold herself for sex; her identity is ‘true’ only to her own experiences.
The illusion of the ‘true’ man resembles the fiction of the unified, universal human subject that 19th-century novelists would invoke to justify the truth of their findings. This figure is suspiciously close in attitude and appearance to the white, upper- and middle-class, heterosexual males who invented him. That Despentes does not fit the description allows her to reclaim and renovate the form they pioneered. In King Kong Théorie, she writes that she left school at 14, was briefly institutionalized at the age of 15, was gang raped at gunpoint when she was 17 and, in her early 20s, worked as an occasional prostitute. She declares these facts in order to establish the standpoint from which she is writing – a partial and fluid perspective that disavows any pretence that the narrator is sufficiently distant from the action to pass judgment.
In her recent work, Despentes extends the feminist principle of identity as a construct to her narrator, a disembodied consciousness sliding in and out of her characters’ minds and bodies. In 2010’s Apocalypse Baby and, subsequently, ‘Vernon Subutex’ – which revolves around the eponymous veteran of the Paris music scene – she explores the possibilities of this freedom. When Vernon is forced into homelessness, the floating narrative voice tracks him around Paris, attaching itself to the people he meets. The style is freewheeling and polyphonic, shaped by the subject more than the author. A chapter that follows a coke-addled trader is realized in the sharp sentences and ramifying thoughts of an overstimulated brain, riffing on patterns, free associating and glorying in the speed of synaptic exchange; when attached to a grieving mother, the voice is hollowed-out and exhausted.
This is a feminist phenomenology, not sexless but infused by polymorphous desire.
The story picks up the rhythms and cadences of the characters’ personalities without ever seeming to put words into their mouths. This is a kind of erotics of representation, premised at first on the feel of the language rather than its meaning, which excites sympathy before it calls for judgement. Instead of the depersonalized mind imposing a symbolic order upon things, Despentes offers a protean and sensuous intelligence. This is a feminist phenomenology, not sexless but infused by polymorphous desire.
‘Vernon Subutex’ might be read as Despentes’s attempt to achieve through prose the function she once ascribed to punk rock, namely to ‘destroy established codes’. The process does not erase difference but, instead, establishes an arena within which differences can co-exist. Despentes does not hope to reach consensus – it’s hard to imagine that she would welcome a universe deprived of conflict – but a space in which the energy inspired by frictions between individuals and groups could be channelled into
a common cause.
The first volume of ‘Vernon Subutex’ concludes with our hero in a fever dream, an epiphany of total identification – ‘I am the undocumented immigrant […] I am the long-term unemployed […] I am the drug mule […] I am the 65-year-old whore’ – that reads like an expanded list of the people for whom Despentes declared herself to be writing in King Kong Théorie. The individual comes to embody a community: to disentangle the two would constitute a violence. In the second volume, Vernon becomes the leader of a curious cult that practises transcendence through music and nonviolent resistance against the state.
The irony of Despentes’s determination to write for the disenfranchized is that it lends her novels a mass appeal. (‘Vernon Subutex’ has sold 300,000 copies in France alone.) In fragmenting Western democracies, all but a minority of the electorate has come to feel – with varying degrees of legitimacy – excluded from power. With each victimized constituency blaming the others, we risk creating segregated societies defined by a culture of narcissistic antagonism, in which the absence of fellow feeling makes change impossible. By challenging the supposition that we cannot understand difference, Despentes proposes that communities might be built upon the shared experience of dispossession rather than broken down through the fear of an imagined other. If misogyny and racism exist to entrench the social divisions that benefit the ruling elite then, by destroying them, it might be possible to form a coalition of the dispossessed. Art, music and literature can contribute to that project.
Main image: Baise-moi (Fuck Me), 2000. Courtesy: Pan-Européenne, Paris
First published in Issue 191