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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Apocalypse Baby

Virginie Despentes

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To purchase Apocalypse Baby

Title: Apocalypse Baby
Author: Virginie Despentes
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 336 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Apocalypse Baby - US
Apocalypse Baby - UK
Apocalypse Baby - Canada
Apocalypse bébé - Canada
Apocalypse Baby - India
Apocalypse bébé - France
Apokalypse Baby - Deutschland
Apocalypse Baby - Italia
  • French title: Apocalypse bébé
  • Translated by Siân Reynolds
  • Awarded the prix Renaudot, 2010

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Our Assessment:

B : solid, entertaining -- but can't quite pull its ending off

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 20/4/2012 Lena Bopp
Independent on Sunday B- 30/6/2013 Doug Johnstone
London Rev. of Books . 10/10/2013 Jenny Turner
NZZ C 31/5/2012 Thomas Laux

  From the Reviews:
  • "Subtilität noch nie Despentes’ Stärke. Ihr ewiger Rückgriff auf sex and crime, der auch hier am Ende als Lösung dient, wird indes auch nicht interessanter dadurch, dass man ihn möglichst oft wiederholt." - Lena Bopp, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "While that commentary is acerbic and perceptive, and there is a refreshingly transgressive spirit to much of what goes on here, Apocalypse Baby is not without its structural and motivational faults. (...) In fact, the missing girl element of the plot doesn't have a lot of energy behind it and tends to get forgotten for long swathes of the narrative. (...) Sexual power, politics, literature, racism and violence all come under Despentes's withering gaze, but it felt to me as if the author had written herself into a corner before the end, and couldn't find a believable, coherent way out for her characters." - Doug Johnstone, Independent on Sunday

  • "(T)here is a twist, and it is massive and wrenching and explosive. I can’t say anything about it, but what I can say is that the Hyena turns out to be more interesting than expected, with a social sensitivity so acute it’s almost a superpower (.....) On the downside, though, the enormity of the twist is unsupported and unprepared for." - Jenny Turner, London Review of Books

  • "Nein, das schockt und rockt nicht; der Unterhaltungswert bleibt unterm Strich mässig." - Thomas Laux, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       At first glance, Apocalypse Baby appears to simply be the story of the search for a runaway teen. Much of the novel is narrated by Lucie Toledo, an employee of the Paris-based Reldanch Agency who specializes in keeping tabs on kids. Her most recent job was tailing Valentine Galtan, the fifteen-year-old daughter of a modestly successful author -- but Valentine gave Lucie the slip and seems to have disappeared. The grandmother offers a bounty and two weeks time for Lucie and the agency to find the girl; Lucie figures she needs some help, and enlists 'the Hyena' -- "a star among private investigators" with quite the reputation (and flamboyantly lesbian, for good measure). Much of Apocalypse Baby is then PI-procedural-cum-road trip-novel, with a mismatched buddy-pair at the center -- with the Hyena eventually finding, for example, that Lucie's: "determined apathy forces respect".
       Alongside Lucie's account of events the novel also switches to third-person perspectives, each focused in turn on one of the many figures involved in the case, beginning with Valentine's father and stepmother, as well as other relatives and eventually even the Hyena, and then Valentine herself -- sections which offer considerably more backstory, filling in personal details and histories as well as offering details which throw new light on the case itself (revealing, for example, pieces of information that are not communicated directly to Lucie and the Hyena).
       The case isn't all that baffling: the Hyena makes sure they go through the motions, but it seems likely the unhappy Valentine went off to Barcelona to find her mother -- Louisa, once upon a time, but she's since reinvented herself as Vanessa --, who apparently abandoned her in infancy, and whom she has never been in contact with.
       There are some red flags right from the beginning, such as the fact that Valentine hasn't left an electronic trail anywhere for almost three months, which everyone finds near-unbelievable:

Fifteen years old, she stops any Internet access and doesn't use her cel -- how do you explain that ?
       The girl is also wildly promiscuous -- "Well, she doesn't do animals, but frankly that seems to be the only limit" -- but still comes across as a pudgy, insecure loser.
       With its person-by-person scenes interspersed in the narrative, Apocalypse Baby also has the feel of a socio-political tableau of contemporary France. There's prix Goncourt-aspiring author François, Valentine's father, who writes:
     Domestic dramas among the bourgeoisie. Catholic, right-wing, but in a traditional way, not aggressive or racist or antisemitic. So nobody much is interested in him.
       (Professional sympathy, perhaps, has Despentes have him awarded the Chevalier of Arts and Letters near the end of the novel, and then even achieve bestselling status -- but she also ensures that he doesn't get to enjoy that new-found fame.)
       François' much younger second wife, Claire, came to him with two younger daughters of her own, and never established any rapport with Valentine, making for background domestic (melo)drama.
       Valentine's cousin, on her mother's side, Yasine, observes the Hyena trying to elicit information from his family -- entirely different in background and class than the Galtans --; to him it's clear:
Well, anyway, do what she likes, there's no way we can get on, her sort of people and our sort of people. Only the kind of French who live in cloud cuckoo land could imagine it's still possible to understand each other.
       Class and social divides play a significant role throughout, as do the power-structures of any variety of partnerships, from the marriages and affairs to family and work. Even the connected keep secrets and hold each other -- invisibly and not -- at bay, and do things behind each others' backs. Many seem to be biding their time -- Yacine most explicitly, but others too -- or clinging to a status quo (that is, in fact, far more precarious than they imagine).
       A typical summing-up aside describing Louisa-as-Vanessa's current domestic arrangement:
With Camille it's more complicated. Who's loving and who's loved ? They have been married three years. She has hardly ever cheated on him. Not that that means anything, but still.
       Lucie and the Hyena head to Barcelona, and do find both Valentine's mother and then the missing girl; Lucie's eyes are also opened in other respects. If the mother-and-daughter reunion had any cathartic effect, it was of a rather different sort than would be expected; instead, Valentine is pulled into another orbit -- though one it seems clear she had, in many respects, been preparing for for months, as we eventually get her perspective on the events leading up to this.
       While Lucie and the Hyena seem successful in their mission, the Hyena is uneasy about how things play out and remains suspicious of (or concerned about) Valentine, sensing things aren't as straightforward as they seem. Indeed, they aren't: Despentes blows up her ending with a dramatic flourish, a twist that's not exactly out of nowhere but, fatally, doesn't appear well-founded enough. It's not so much that it's unexpected, but the scale is so over the top (as then also is the merely sketched catalog of personal and public consequences) that it feels more like a comic-book ending, especially given the otherwise reasonably realistic progression of the novel to that point. (The (semi-)finale also seems highly unrealistic in being explosively all out of proportion -- never mind the crude/unabashed symbolism at play here: it's not a mind-fuck, but this apocalypse, baby, comes about via what can only be seen as an ersatz-penis, detached from the nuisance of a male body, but no less destructive for that.)
       Despentes shows tottering foundations -- of society and relationships -- and then, in that grand finale, brings them crashing down (and hammers home her message positing devastating radical consequences on personal and public levels). The weakness of the endeavor is that resolution simply doesn't quite follow -- though Despentes might argue that it is simply (French) society and its issues, as depicted over the course of the novel, that supply all the necessary foundation, and her conclusion is merely the obvious final consequence.
       The problem may well lie in the fact that Apocalypse Baby isn't clear about who is subject (and/or object) in the novel: Lucie is a weak narrator in the sense that she isn't allowed to carry the story, the narrative shifting constantly to other (generally more interesting, too ...) characters. Even as Lucie is the one who ties up the loose ends, as it were, in summarizing what ultimately happened, she is at that point literally no longer herself, living under an assumed name, essentially entirely at the mercy of others for her very existence. The Hyena is a colorful, knowing, take-charge figure -- and yet Despentes doesn't even know what to do with her in the end, the character simply disappearing from the story. And Valentine is never given enough of a role either, even as hers is so central; blanks are filled in, but she, and much of her motivation, remains a mystery.
       Apocalypse Baby bobs along entertainingly enough much of the way. Despentes recounts the adventures of her mismatched pair, Lucie and the Hyena, enjoyably enough, and the Hyena is an intriguing, strong figure. The third-person passages focused on the various other characters also impress as revealing character-portraits -- but the narrative as a whole then feels too uncommitted, in its switching back and forth to Lucie's account. And its final ambition is much too great for what preceded it, fatally weakening its impact -- and hence that of the novel as a whole.
       Apocalypse Baby is, for the most part, a good read, but it wants to be something more, too, and as that, it just doesn't work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 May 2015

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Apocalypse Baby: Reviews: Other books by Virginie Despentes under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Virginie Despentes was born in 1969.

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