[The] prose is so powerful, and so perfect, that we forget we’re even reading. Opening up Vernon Subutex 1 is more like stepping inside a thrilling, pulsing party and getting instantly mesmerized by the whirling couple at the center of the crowd ... Part of what makes this book so exciting to read is Despentes’s ability to broach so many topics, toggling between them in seamless, almost superhuman fashion. Deftly she tackles sex, materialism, the technologies that are hastening society’s collapse, capitalism, racism, gender fluidity, wounded masculinity, wounded femininity, domestic violence, homelessness, porn, the hypocrisy of the left, and the virulence of the right ... Despentes writes her characters with such heart, locating in their simplicity a kind of masterful complexity, making them wonderful and mediocre—in other words, human ... Despentes and Wynne are both humble, respectful, graceful, and unbelievably effective at conveying story and ideas. If they felt like it, we feel, they could destroy us. But instead they’ll just tell us this great story that will make us see ourselves and others in a whole new way.
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 ... brilliantly deadpan ... The stage is set for what will prove one of the books of the year, if not the decade, and as it is the first volume of a trilogy and already has a cult following on France, the best advice is, simply, to read it and pass on the word ... No review could do it justice; think the vintage Martin Amis of Money and especially The Information or of Keith Ridgway’s neglected Celtic Tiger caper The Parts and then consider how effectively Despentes relegates Emmanuel Carrere and Michel Houellebecq to appearing almost ordinary by sheer force of her vivid and fluid prose, satirical observations, comic timing, extensive knowledge of ’90s music and, above all, her inspired, at times merciless, at times tender, flair for characterisation ... Frank Wynne, one of the finest literary translators in Spanish as well as French, has not missed either a nuance or a comic beat and effortlessly conveys all the energy, wit, emotional intelligence and pathos of a singular work. The great Balzac would applaud this very human comedy which is a 21st-century nod to the narrative approach of 19th-century writers ... fast-moving and very funny, at times shocking ... For all the frenzy and set pieces, the caustic exchanges and wry asides, Despentes displays impressive control. Her burlesque is all-seeing and disciplined, not tidy, yet always dauntingly cohesive ... 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.
... translated by the reliably outstanding Frank Wynne ... with Vernon Subutex, a sprawling, scintillating panorama of contemporary Paris, [Despentes] has produced a bona fide magnum opus ... 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. She simply does not care about political niceties, which allows her to extend imaginatively—though always unsparingly—into the lives of the losers, abusers, outcasts and reactionaries who brush shoulders on the Métro every morning. In contrast to the cautious moralizing of so much American fiction, Ms. Despentes’s teeming feat of negative capability is all the more exhilarating.
... virtuosic ... The novel’s first half is grim, luminous, and packed with stunning psychological insight, but it’s contained enough to allow the reader to feel in control. You’re lulled by the trajectory of the mystery—what do those tapes reveal?—and the chase. Then, the second half cartwheels off the course of the caper and twists into something darker and more exuberant ... the best novel we have about Facebook, and not just because its cast is a reflection of one man’s 'friends list.' Vernon’s Facebook use propels the novel’s forward momentum ... a brilliant, blistering social novel that’s only become more relevant since its initial 2015 publication ... touches upon the increasing precariousness and invaluableness of the personal brand, the spread of misinformation online, and the rise of the right wing populism. Prescience can sound ponderous; in Despentes’ hands it’s wry ... The translation uses Anglicisms that make the dry wit of Vernon Subutex 1 sound especially deadpan to American ears ... grinds you to a pulp, but it also exposes you to something urgently human. This is a vital novel.
Virginie Despentes has delivered both an 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.
Vernon Subutex 1 is grander in its ambition [than Despentes's other novels], but it sprawls, the voices of the characters blend together, and it’s occasionally sloppy ... The misogyny and xenophobia of her characters are startlingly aggressive; the book is filled with a bitterness that doesn’t taste quite as clean as rage ... 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 ... 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.
... baggy, expletive-laden ... at once a love letter to punk rock and a portrait of a generation formed by youth culture and now left behind by a hyper-consumerist version of it ... There’s something horribly self-satisfied about Despentes’ cynicism, as if the casual bigotry of her characters provides her and her readers a racy thrill. Look at us liberals reclaiming bigotry for ourselves! We can mock leftie intellectuals too! And we can produce work that’s as phony, shallow and repetitive as pornography. It’s a bit like being stuck next to a rancid drunk on an endless train journey.
Despentes hits all of the nodal points in contemporary Parisian life, but in Frank Wynne’s inspired translation, the novel transpose[s] smoothly to London or any Western metropolis ... Despentes is a great satirist, but the novel avoids the predictable dead-end of default cynicism because she fully inhabits the sexual habits, desires, ambitions and hatreds of all her characters ... sprawling and masterly ... 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 ... Despentes is often described as a 'rock and roll' Balzac or Zola. She also resembles, by turns, William Gibson, George Eliot and Michel Houellebecq, with a sunnier attitude ... There are great lines on every page ... Friendships and alliances emerge across this vast web of characters in a series of intermeshed subplots composed like a high-concept television series.
... it is obvious at least to me that Despentes’s trilogy should be a bigger a deal than it currently is. Brash, provocative, heartbreaking, the Vernon Subutex books offer a biting taxonomic portrait of twenty-first-century society that should resonate as much to American readers as European ones. While the specific milieu portrayed is contemporary France, the book raises internationally relevant questions about community in the age of social media, the importance of authenticity in art, and shifting notions of racial and gender identities. Despentes writes with an unrestrained vibrancy, shifting among a large cast of characters in a careening free-indirect discourse that often devolves into brilliant monologuic rants. In our current age of exquisite autofiction, in which the window of what certain authors are allowed to write about given their identity sometimes seems to be narrowing, Despentes’s rainbow-colored character tapestry comes off as refreshingly rebellious.
... a rich cast-of-character sequence of descriptions ... a somewhat but appealingly meandering novel, more concerned with stage-setting and character-description than driven by plot ... 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 ... 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.
... a searing social satire and biting portrait of contemporary France ... Despentes’s timely novel is both arch and political without being too obvious that it’s either. This is a rollicking, brilliant send-up of masculinity, politics, and rock ’n’ roll.
... a soap-operatic portrait of a variety of burnouts rather than an actual narrative ... The writing here is evocative of any number of transgressive writers, including Welsh and Kathy Acker, but while the characters are tangible, the lack of a narrative keeps the book from feeling satisfying ... A caustic portrait of the blank generation facing middle age.