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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Vernon Subutex 1

Virginie Despentes

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To purchase Vernon Subutex 1

Title: Vernon Subutex 1
Author: Virginie Despentes
Genre: Novel
Written: 2015 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 340 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Vernon Subutex 1 - US
Vernon Subutex 1 - UK
Vernon Subutex 1 - Canada
Vernon Subutex 1 - Canada (French)
Vernon Subutex 1 - France
Das Leben des Vernon Subutex 1 - Deutschland
Vernon Subutex 1 - Italia
Vernon Subutex 1 - España
  • French title: Vernon Subutex 1
  • The first in a trilogy
  • Translated by Frank Wynne

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid characters-/times-study , but doesn't get far beyond that (yet ?)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A 2/5/2018 Catherine Taylor
Irish Times A+ 14/10/2017 Eileen Battersby
NZZ . 23/9/2017 Paul Jandl
The NY Rev. of Books . 23/4/2020 Nadja Spiegelman
The Spectator . 29/7/2017 David Sexton
Sunday Times . 23/7/2017 David Mills
The Times . 27/7/2018 Johanna Thomas-Corr
TLS . 7/11/2018 Chris Kraus
Wall St. Journal . 1/11/2019 Sam Sacks
World Lit. Today . 5-6/2016 Jeffrey Zuckerman

  Review Consensus:

  Pretty much all very impressed, enjoyed it a lot

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A)n achingly cool punk burlesque and a satirical epic with nods to Rabelais and Swift. A foul-mouthed skewering of the morass that is modern society, and France in particular, the book is translated by Frank Wynne with such dynamism and verve that the reader can barely keep pace. (...) At once a novel of the internet age and a withering examination of France’s political polarisation and the evisceration of leftwing intellectualism, Vernon Subutex 1 scrutinises misogyny, pornography, poverty, religion, race, neo-fascism and gender issues. Its hipness recalls the films of Jean-Jacques Beineix and Leos Carax, making for an intoxicating blend of the retro and au courant." - Catherine Taylor, The Guardian

  • "It is fast-moving and very funny, at times shocking. (...) Seldom has a novel with so much vicious humour and political intent also included moments of beautifully choreographed, unexpected tragedy. Bold and sophisticated, this thrilling, magnificently audacious picaresque is about France and is also about all of us; how loudly we shout, how badly we hurt. It is the story of now." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

  • "Auch wenn Virginie Despentes in ihrem Roman soziologische Devianzforschung betreibt und besondere Typen aus sehr speziellen Milieus beschreibt, hat man nie das Gefühl, dass es eine Welt ausserhalb der bekannten ist. (...) Bei aller Brutalität und Schnoddrigkeit ist Das Leben des Vernon Subutex in erstaunlich zartem Ton geschrieben." - Paul Jandl, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "The series is a departure from her pulp writing, a sprawling Parisian epic à la Zola, focused as much on class as on sex. (...) Taken as a whole, the trilogy is a rather extraordinary act of creation and destruction, a realistic Paris evoked, transformed, and torn apart. But Despentes, with her ear for spoken French, is almost impossible to translate, and Frank Wynne’s translation is no better than those of her other books. (...) In translating the rich range of Despentes’s argot (...), Wynne, who is Irish, pulls from hacker culture, African-American vernacular, and slang from the north of England in an unfortunate mixture that undercuts a book whose greatest pleasure is the precision of its references." - Nadja Spiegelman, The New York Review of Books

  • "Despentes is admired in France for her sympathy for those excluded from the mainstream of society. However, she shows herself here to be, in her own way, pretty savagely dictatorial herself -- for example laying down the law about ageing as a general catastrophe." - David Sexton, The Spectator

  • "Part pulp fiction, part picaresque realism, Vernon Subutex races along, hilariously tracing the dissolution of French civic life in the twenty-first century. But the pain felt by its actors is real and often heartrending. (...) There are great lines on every page." - Chris Kraus, Times Literary Supplement

  • "A master of the free indirect style, Ms. Despentes inhabits the minds of a diverse cast of characters while doing for Paris what Joyce did for Dublin. (...) While Ms. Despentes can be a savage observer of that world, she’s also capable of creating moments of surpassing vulnerability. Yet the quality that struck this reader most forcibly is her freedom of thought. (...) In contrast to the cautious moralizing of so much American fiction, Ms. Despentes’s teeming feat of negative capability is all the more exhilarating." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "Despentes effortlessly slips in and out of these various lives, deftly switching styles each time (one chapter is as harsh as Bukowski, another as precise as Ernaux), and in so doing creates a new Comédie humaine depicting the various social milieux of the early twenty-first century." - Jeffrey Zuckerman, World Literature Today

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:

       A character with the unusual name of Vernon Subutex is, unsurprisingly, the central figure in this novel, but Despentes' characters-and-times study ranges considerably beyond, often leaving him by the wayside as she shifts to the stories of others among her large cast of characters. Vernon is a central and connecting figure -- but so is Alexandre (Alex) Bleach, a veritable rock star whom Vernon and many of the other characters also knew; the action is set in motion with Alex's death.
       The only life Vernon ever knew was as a record dealer, from age twenty to forty five; he eventually had his own shop, Revolver. By 2006 it all went south and was unsustainable any longer. Vernon made some decent money selling his remaining stock on eBay, but without the least hope of finding gainful employment with that kind of résumé ("wow, shit, can't be easy to find a new job", even a young police inspector commiserates, late in the going). Pretty soon found he himself in uncomfortable straits -- only to have Alex bail him out (as he easily could: "With one song, Alexandre earned more than a guy like Vernon in twenty years running the shop"), once and then repeatedly, paying his rent when Vernon had nowhere else to turn. It's not like they were that close, but they got along on some level and Vernon could always count on Alex. And once Alex is dead, Vernon finds himself quickly and truly down and out -- evicted overnight, with what few things he can gather and schlepp off with him (the rest put in storage by the authorities, who will let him bail it out if he can scrounge up the necessary cash in time).
       Vernon has friends and admirers, and a sort easy-going way that makes people willing to help him out, a bit. He can borrow a couch or room for a few nights, and so he gets by for quite a while. But only for so long. The basic arc of Vernon Subutex 1 has him descending into ever direr straits, and eventually winding up literally on the streets -- but, hey, it's only act one of this trilogy. And, despite his fairly hopeless-seeming circumstances, Vernon's situation has distinct potential: he might not be aware of it, but as someone whose been looking for him explains when he is at what would seem to be his lowest: "You've become France's Most Wanted on Twitter". As readers know, a lot of people have been looking for Vernon Subutex.
       Vernon doesn't have much with him -- and less when he blows one of his first living arrangements. But along with the things that he did take from his apartment were three videotapes Alex had made one drug-addled night he had been over at Vernon's, interviewing himself via camcorder while Vernon dozed off beside him. Vernon didn't pay much attention when Alex woke him up and tried to get him to watch his "preposterous performance", and Vernon had never played them afterwards, but he had held onto them, and he understands -- though maybe not so well -- that these might be of value, now that Alex is dead. Still they aren't his top priority -- unlike that of some of the other characters, who are eager, even desperate, to get their hands on this material. Indeed, one of his qualities, for better and worse, is an almost complete lack of sense of urgency. He's not so much resigned to his fate as he is one to shrug it off; he goes through some of the motions to ingratiate himself with those who might help him, but he's also quick to draw lines, and high-tails it out of situations where he starts feeling cramped with alacrity. If that leads to sleeping on the streets, so be it.
       Vernon isn't exactly an innocent, but guile-ness is definitely limited. Part of it is a youthful naïveté that he's never outgrown -- to the extent that even around age fifty: "He's exactly like he was at twenty, it's like he's been preserved in formaldehyde". A typical opinion is:

There is something about his face that is not tainted. Vernon was always a modest guy, never caused any trouble, happy to help out. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, like most guys in the music business, brain the size of a pea, but he's not the kind to stab you in the back.
       Vernon does have his talents; he winds up DJing at one of the living-opportunities he falls into and is apparently sublime -- "he'll play anything, but it works. He's the Nadia Comăneci of the playlist". But he also has his weaknesses, including his relationships with women -- including but not limited to being decidedly non-committal --, which repeatedly lead to him being shown the door again.
       Vernon isn't just a shallow canvas, but most of the supporting cast in Vernon Subutex 1 consists of stronger personalities. From great success Alex to right-wing friend Xavier (and his wife, one woman who doesn't particularly take to Vernon), to the social media savvy Hyena who can organize a media lynching (or, if need be, generate some positive buzz) to film producer Laurent Dopalet, who sicks the Hyena on the Vernon-case, charging her with finding the mystery-man with those tapes that Dopalet wants very badly. There's also Lydia, who got herself a deal writing a biography of Alex -- hence her interest in a scoop Vernon might be sitting on --, and porn star Pamela Kant (who also wants to write a book -- her pitch however being: "a children's book, a guide to porn. Since they're gorging on porn on the internet before they even learn to read, she thinks it only sensible to tell them what it is"). And there's Patrice, who just couldn't stop himself from beating up his wife, who then walked out on him with the two kids.
       Despentes sums up these various lives throughout Vernon Subutex 1, a rich cast-of-character sequence of descriptions. Patrice's sorry tale is typical, as he understands quite well what he was doing in the relationship but just couldn't change his ways. Despentes sums up the collapse of the marriage simply:
Patrice was furious when he found out that she had gone to stay at some home for battered wives. Their relationship wasn' like that, it wasn't some cliché of domestic violence. But, as it turns out, it was. Their story is just like every other. He is a caricature.
       It makes for a somewhat but appealingly meandering novel, more concerned with stage-setting and character-description than driven by plot; the video tapes are central, but don't really figure very tangibly at this point -- for now they are all vague potential --: what they reveal, and what they could mean to various characters is, for now, basically only suggested. A colorful large cast of characters is introduced and a lot is set into motion -- but really only the beginnings of motion; even Vernon's spiral-to-the-streets is an almost leisurely fall and, unsurprisingly, the first act of this trilogy ends with the promise of a pick-me-up.
       It's a fine portrait of quite a variety of slices of French (essentially Parisian) life, many of them baffled by how things have turned out and acting up or out in reaction. A common theme is change -- how the characters are different, and what remains the same, with Vernon, for now, the exemplar of not moving on or growing up. Despentes shows a sure hand in her sketches of some of these lives, and the banality of so much of them -- down to the hardships (which doesn't make them any less hard or sad). It makes for good read -- though it's also very obviously just the start of a bigger conception, a first chapter of a three-act story.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 November 2019

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Vernon Subutex 1: 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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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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