Vernon Subutex, 1
by Virginie Despentes (2015)
translated from the French by Frank Wynne (2018)
Maclehose Press (2018)
352 pp

Inexplicably shortlisted for the MBI, but thanks to Amazon for giving me a full refund on the grounds of ‘offensiveness to literature’.

She uses young people’s words, says them without yet knowing how ridiculous they are. She says “swear down”, she says “on fleek”, she says “bae”, and he recognises the fervent foolishness of people who feel the need to put the same expressions in every sentence.

While not a big fan generally, one advantage of the Kindle is that one can easily read previews of books before deciding whether to purchase and read on.

I would strongly recommend doing so for Vernon Subutex, 1 because this is a love/hate sort of book (I was going to say marmite but the comparison is unfair on my favorite spread): if you enjoy the first chapter then you will likely love the book that results, and indeed find yourself eagerly awaiting Part 2. I would point you to the reviews of two of my favorite Goodreaders, Meike and Neil, as well as the rave review by the always-worth-reading Eileen Battersby in the Irish Times (here).

If on the other hand, like this reader, your heart sinks at character descriptions like this:

Séverine was tall and hyper — so hyper she could be exhausting — she had legs that went on forever, she looked like a Parisian rich bitch, the sort of girl who can wear a sheepskin jacket and make it look cool. She grabbed life by the balls, there was nothing she could not do around the house, even changing a tyre on the hard shoulder did not faze her, she was the sort of rich brat who was used to sorting things out herself and never complaining.

Or commentary on modern society like this:

He would glance at the headlines. But he spent most of his time on porn sites. He doesn’t want to think about the crisis, about Islam, climate change, fracking, ill-treated orangutans, about Romanians getting chucked off buses. 

Then do yourself a favor and stop, as it only gets worse — much, much worse.

Now the one part of the novel that I did enjoy was the character whose job is to provide a social media lynching on request for people’s enemies and rivals, and I do know my review is about to fall into this trap:

Inciting a media lynching is much easier than generating a positive buzz – she claims that she knows how to do both, but cruelty makes for better clickbait in this day and age. A man who breaks things is a man who makes himself heard — it is crucial to adopt a male persona when trashing someone. The only sound that soothes the savage breast of the lunatics who haunt the corridors of the web is the splintering sound of a warder breaking a prisoner’s bones. Three rave reviews for some T.V. pilot and people start to suspect they’re being manipulated, thirty vicious comments and no-one thinks to question it. The casual browser can pat himself on the back and think “I wasn’t born yesterday”, but he has already passed on the message as intended. Scorn is as contagious as scabies.

But nevertheless . . .

Borumil Hrabal, in Too Loud a Solitude, said (in Michael Henry Heim’s translation

When I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.

Here I found myself wanting to spit out most of the sentences, and to reach urgently for a bottle of mouthwash.

This is a book where a character might be described to another as “She’s such a fucking skank, I’d rather bone a blow-up doll.” One rather sympathized that “when Sylvie described her friends to Vernon, he stopped her, palm thrust forward, singing ‘Stop! In the name of love.'”

Or the local supermarket subject to the sophisticated observational comedy that:

His local Monoprix is run by fuckwits. It never fails: they wait until the place is full of customers and then tell the staff to stack the shelves. Doing their utmost to ensure it is impossible to manoeuvre a shopping trolley. They could stock the shelves in the morning before they open, they could do it when business is slack. No, they prefer to do it at peak hours: stack three palettes across the aisle, make it as difficult as possible for the cretinous customers to do their shopping. All the retrograde fucking packaging winds him up.

Apparently the novel was translated by Frank Wynne, although given most adverbs and adjectives are drawn from a narrow list of profanities (the above are mild examples) I suspect it didn’t take him long. There was also a surprising number of missing punctuation, misspellings, missing or added words, suggesting the proof reader rather struggled to tell what was deliberately badly written and what was simply a typo.

And one key issue I have is a significant disagreement with Eileen Battersby’s review which includes the line:

Welcome to 21st-century France, it could as easily be anywhere but the outrageously gifted film-maker and writer extraordinaire, Virginie Despentes, has set her epic social satire in Paris, specifically in the chaotic shark pool inhabited by screen writers, social media groupies, porn stars, failed musicians, random misfits and a controversial dead icon. Bold and sophisticated, this thrilling, magnificently audacious picaresque is about France and is also about all of us.

Except it isn’t — it really isn’t. The cast of character is largely drawn from a narrow social set that represents a tiny minority of the actual population but which is significantly over-represented in literature and the arts.

This book is of course on the Man Booker International longlist (and shortlist) which made me, as a member of the shadow jury, contractually obliged to read on. This is book 11/13 for me and the first 10 impressed me with both their diversity and their high quality. This one, to be fair, scores well on the first count, in part by being a glaring exception to the second.

And the other advantage of the Kindle — that I could easily delete this book. Had I the physical copy, I would feel slightly, but only slightly, uneasy about throwing it in the bin.

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