HomeUncategorizedThe Stinging Provocations of Virginie Despentes

The Stinging Provocations of Virginie Despentes

Virginie Despentes has made of her life a long critical inquiry into gender and sexuality.Photograph by Isabella De Maddalena / LUZ / Redux

I first read Virginie Despentes about ten years ago, when an English translation of her book “King Kong Theory,” a collection of essays on gender and sexuality, started making the rounds among my friends. (That translation fell out of print; a new one, by Frank Wynne, is out this month.) In an era of moral panic over thongs and online porn, Despentes was the rare voice to critique the confidence of so-called pro-sex feminism without lapsing into nostalgia for conventional married life. In the book, which was published in France in 2006, she describes her experience as a survivor of being gang raped when she was a teen-ager, and, later, her work as a prostitute—her preferred term. (She puts “sex work” in quotes, treating it as an American affectation.) She shares with Camille Paglia the view that, as Despentes puts it, rape is an “inevitable risk” for women who want to “go outside and move around freely.” This idea disgusted her at first, but it soon transformed into a source of solace. “Rape was no longer something to deny, something to be crushed by, but something to live with,” she writes. Reading Paglia for the first time, in Spin magazine, Despentes felt as though “someone was validating the ability to get over it instead of meekly lying down amid a treasury of trauma.” She describes prostitution as another “crucial step” in her self-reconstruction, “a compensation settlement in thousand-franc installments for what had been brutally taken from me.” The work gave her a specifically female mode of sexual power that she compares to the emancipatory effect of writing: “doing that which isn’t done, opening up your private self, laying yourself open to the judgment of others, accepting exclusion from the group. More importantly, as a woman: becoming a public woman.” For Despentes, legal attempts to control the exchange of money for sex represent a societal obsession with denying women their natural advantages. But she does not take the work lightly: “Don’t kid yourself,” she writes. “Once you’re in, there’s no way out.”

In France, Despentes, who was born in 1969 in the northeastern city of Nancy, has been well known since she published her first novel, the rape-revenge story “Baise-Moi,” at the age of twenty-three. In 2000, she co-directed a film adaptation of the novel with the French porn star Coralie Trinh Thi; it became the first movie to be banned in France in twenty-eight years. (The title of both the book and the movie is often rendered in English as “Rape Me,” but “Fuck Me” is a more accurate translation.) Despentes noted that the explicit representation of rape, what she called “opening the wound,” got more censure than most rapists do. She attributed the ban to sexism, and to her refusal to be a “dignified victim,” although the film’s provocations, which call the bluff of Quentin Tarantino or Gaspar Noé by showing actual genitals in scenes of sexual violence, upset nearly everyone. By the time “King Kong Theory” was published, six years later, Despentes had “quit heterosexuality,” according to an interview in the Guardian. “Being attracted to that which destroys us may be exciting and arousing,” she writes in that book, “but it is also a handicap: it excludes us from power.” She had begun a relationship with the transgender Spanish writer Paul B. Preciado, who documented their love affair in a memoir, “Testo Junkie.” “We’ll come together at a fractal moment,” Preciado writes of the lover identified only as “VD.” “She is becoming a lesbian; and, as for me, I’m becoming something other than a girl.”

Despentes writes in the angry tenor of the feminism that galvanized me as a teen-ager, but that I fancied I’d outgrown by my mid-twenties. Not wanting my gender to be at all deterministic of my freedom or my sexuality, I was in a phase of rejecting anything that insisted there was no way out, especially in the broad strokes that Despentes sometimes took. (Her quip that “Capitalism is an equal-opportunity religion in the sense that it subjugates us all, and leads each of us to feel trapped, as all women are,” was the kind of statement I found especially unhelpful.) Revisiting “King Kong Theory” now, I can see that what I read as a dire lament about the gender binary was rather the testimony of an uncompromising life and its difficulties. The book has one theme that it reiterates over and over: don’t delude yourself that a life lived with freedom and in search of experience will be free of damage. Punishments will arrive, especially for women, but conformity is worse. “That’s the whole concept of punk—not doing what you’re told,” Despentes writes. Punk informs her sensibility as much if not more than any school of feminism. Like Simone de Beauvoir before her, she has made of her life a long critical inquiry into gender and sexuality, and her trauma is a fact of her personal history rather than a delicate porcelain object. “I go back to it again and again,” she writes of the assault she suffered in her teens. “It is a foundation stone. Of who I am as a writer, as a woman who is no longer quite a woman. It is what simultaneously disfigures me and makes me whole.”

Despentes is now the author of a dozen books, several of which have been adapted for the screen. She has been nominated for the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, and has become a post-punk intellectual celebrity along the lines of Patti Smith or Henry Rollins. (In her author photo, she wears a Motörhead tank top.) In 2015, she published the first two novels in a trilogy about a character named Vernon Subutex, who is something like the record-store-owning protagonist of Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity” if we met him ten years later, after his relationship has failed and his record shop—Vernon’s was called Revolver—has gone out of business thanks to the rise of digital music streaming. The novels, all three of which have now been translated into English by Frank Wynne, were huge bestsellers in France, and were adapted into a television series starring Romain Duris. They are insistently contemporary, marking time with references to the exile of Edward Snowden, the death of David Bowie, and the massacres at the Charlie Hebdo offices and the Bataclan theatre.

When the first novel in the trilogy begins, a few years after Revolver has closed, Vernon is approaching the nadir of a years-long decline. His unemployment benefits have ended; he eats only rice and can no longer afford coffee or cigarettes; whatever money he scrapes together goes toward paying his Internet bill. He’s past the point in life when poverty could be played as romantic, an affectation that he is starting to understand was generational. “Being flat broke has lost its poetic charm since Zadig & Voltaire started exploiting thrift store chic,” Vernon laments, referring to the Parisian fashion brand known for its zippers and chains, “whereas for decades it was the trademark of the true artist, of someone who refused to sell his soul.”

Paris is expensive now, and most of his friends have returned to the provinces after having kids. The ones who remain have started dying prematurely: of cancer, of a heart attack, of a car accident. Vernon has just learned of the latest casualty, a rock star named Alexandre Bleach who remained a loyal Revolver customer even after he became mega-famous. Bleach, who was Black, loved Vernon Subutex because he never tried to recommend reggae or hip-hop albums to him, and because Vernon was the only person he knew who was unaffected by Bleach’s fame. Bleach dies in a hotel bathtub, like Whitney Houston—“a champagne-and-prescription-meds coproduction; he fell asleep.” The problem, for Vernon, is that Bleach had been paying his rent for years.

When goons show up to evict him, he leaves with some clothes in a backpack and a single valuable asset: VHS tapes of candid on-camera interviews with his dead friend. Vernon doesn’t know what’s on them—Bleach would come over to Vernon’s house, press record, snort cocaine and monologue while his host slept—but he hopes they might be worth the thousand Euros he needs to get his things out of storage. In the meantime, Vernon messages long-lost friends and woos his way into the bed of any woman who will have him. Vernon’s great advantages in life are his beautiful blue eyes and an easygoing charm that women find irresistible. He can cook gratin dauphinois and compile the perfect playlist. He is a considerate houseguest who folds his bedding in the morning and knows when to leave. The book recounts his great couch-surfing tour of Paris, with each chapter told from the perspective either of Vernon or of one of his associates, a formal device by which Despentes generates a chorus of disaffected Gen Xers.

There is Emilie, for instance, who was once a bass player into riot-grrrl music but now has an M.B.A. and wears her hair in a bob instead of her old Mohawk. “She has done everything her parents wanted her to do,” Despentes writes. “Except have a child, which means everything else does not count.” She gives Vernon one night. He moves along to Xavier, a washed-up screenwriter whose wife no longer loves him and who has settled into the comfort of armchair bigotry, and then to Sylvie, a recovered heroin addict who considers returning to hard drugs “after the menopause.” When Sylvie begins to fall in love with Vernon, he flees for the studio apartment of Lydia Bazooka, a twentysomething journalist who wants to write a biography of Alex Bleach. A rich, coke-addled banker named Kiko puts Vernon up in exchange for his d.j.-ing but ejects him when he begins an affair with his live-in girlfriend, a trans Brazilian hairdresser named Marcia. Patrice, Vernon’s next host, is a frustrated leftist who works for the post office and goes to group therapy to control a tendency to beat up his girlfriends.

Vernon and his aging bohemian cohort are marked most of all by a growing estrangement from the world around them. “Vernon is still trapped in the last century, when people still took the trouble to pretend that being was more important than having,” one of his friends says. Younger generations, with their practical conformism, their embrace of right-wing politics, and their uncritical reception of music that sounds like capitalism, baffle them. A man named Selim has a daughter who has refused his secular intellectualism for the head scarf, the mosque, and a degree as an accountant. He offers a gloss on her attitude: “Maybe people still rebelled against authority back in your day, long ago. See where it got you? My generation goes about things differently.”

Vernon and his friends tolerate racism and misogyny as lamentable character flaws rather than cancellable offenses, and they treat the humorless identity politics of people born after 1980 with wry disdain. The gay characters scoff at marriage: “We’re dykes, real dykes, we’ve suffered for it and we don’t want to be like fucking straights,” one lesbian character says to another, over glasses of Muscatel from Alsace. A porn star transitions not because he was assigned the wrong gender identity at birth but simply because he can. “I’ve got tattoos, I’ve done porn, I’ve smoked crack. Why shouldn’t I become a guy?” Daniel, formerly known as Deborah, asks. When Daniel spoke to an endocrinologist before his transition, we learn, “she regurgitated all the stories she had read online and managed to dodge the question when asked why, if she had always felt that she was a man, she’d had a breast augmentation.”

Vernon runs through his friends until he is no longer nominally homeless but officially so, setting up in the yard of an abandoned house overlooking the Buttes Chaumont, a large park in Paris. Preoccupied with finding food and shelter, he remains oblivious to a brewing conspiracy. A villainous movie producer named Laurent Dopalet has heard about the tapes Vernon wants to offload and suspects they may contain some dirt on him. Dopalet hires a paranoid lesbian with martial-arts skills known only as the Hyena to track down the tapes. Dopalet is not the only one looking for them. A couple of retired porn stars are also interested in what Bleach had to say about an old colleague of theirs, a performer with the stage name Vodka Satana, who died under mysterious circumstances.

“Vernon Subutex” is part slapstick caper and part social novel; by the end of the trilogy, it starts to verge into speculative fiction. There are rich characters and impoverished ones, Marxists and neo-Nazis, celibates and philanderers. They all circulate in a gentrified Paris that is not what it used to be, as the entire ensemble constantly laments. Her characters occasionally sound like another Gen Xer, Andrew Yang: “The economy no longer means anything to a whole section of the population,” one remarks. “They are no longer poor workers, they are unnecessary.” But these characters uniformly bemoan the gutting of France’s social safety net and the hypocrisy of leftist politicians who pander to the élite. They share the belief that complying with an economy of exploitation and greed is the true madness, and that maladjustment, even in the form of right-wing extremism or religious zealotry, is the only sane response. They process their emotions through music and movies—like Hornby, or Bret Easton Ellis, Despentes soundtracks her story with songs, and the novel is best read with speakers nearby.

When I started reading these novels, I thought that Despentes was trolling an archetypal depressive male protagonist, the kind that one finds in Martin Amis’s “Money” or in the novels of Michel Houellebecq—or of Nick Hornby, or, for that matter, of any number of straight, white, male novelists. But Despentes deploys the archetype much as the men before her have done. Putting Vernon, the familiar sad sack, at the helm of her ship of queers, vagrants, immigrants, and spinsters, grants her a certain immunity—his problems will be read as societal ones rather than female ones. He does not represent any particular identity, just the world. His sexuality is not tainted by violence or trauma, but is open, eager, and benign.

In a Houellebecq novel, the characters’ politics seem to reflect their author’s worldview; when Despentes ventriloquizes intolerance, as she frequently does, she seems to be offering a critique. Even so, she portrays multiculturalism as an ideal that is only gestured at but rarely believed—lift the lid ever so slightly on the liberal consensus, she suggests, and resentment and intolerance will be there, simmering away. “He feels connected to primitive energy that has been denied him for decades, an energy that is French, patriotic, powerful, and rich,” Dopalet, the bad guy, thinks, as he indulges in some light anti-Semitism. “He is aware of the monstrousness of his thoughts. He is fifty years old, all his life he has been told not to think such things.” The books are not an antidote to Houellebecq’s view of France but an affirmation of it. Here, too, one encounters preoccupations with Islam, immigration, pornography, and drugs; brutal descriptions of women aging; bleak dilations on the impossibility of love; criticisms of the ineffectual French left. With both writers, one feels the collapse of a national myth, and one finds a crippling disorientation in its place.

By the second book in the trilogy, Vernon’s character—sleeping outside, racked with fever—has had a spiritual transformation, and become a kind of guru. People begin gathering in the Buttes Chaumont to be near him, bringing him offerings. His d.j. sets at a nearby bar begin to take on mystical portent. The friends on whom he relied start to form a family of misanthropes. Soon they begin to organize a series of phone-free, drug-free gatherings known as “convergences,” during which Vernon uses Alex Bleach’s late-career experiments with binaural beats to induce a trancelike state in his audiences. Vernon generates a cult of mystique despite his utter failure to take care of himself.

In the third book, he relies wholly on others to manage his responsibilities and enjoys a life of idle polyamory, which, as far as he can tell, means “sleeping with whoever he likes without worrying about what the last girl might think.” All around him is cruelty and destruction, but he floats along, not needing to do much, because the whole world upholds him—and even when things are at their bleakest someone arrives to take care of him. With nothing but good taste in music and sexual charisma, he presides. By the end of the trilogy, far into the future, Vernon and his followers have left a legacy as a cult-like religion that rejects technology for analogue human communion. The only authentic alternative to the dehumanization of capitalism is, apparently, something resembling Burning Man.

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