Vernon Subutex was once the proprietor of Revolver, an infamous music shop in Paris. By the 2000s, however, with the arrival of the internet and the decline in CD and vinyl sales, his shop is struggling. When it closes, his savings are gone, and Subutex finds himself launched on an epic saga of couch-surfing, boozing, and coke-snorting before finally winding up homeless. Originally published in French in 2015 and short-listed for the International Man Booker Prize.
[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.