Something Like Hope: On Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex 2 by Rebecca Rukeyser

An eerily at peace coterie.

French Park

Suspension Bridge, Parc des Buttes-Chamont. Photo by Momo-B from Wikimedia Commons

If the project of Vernon Subutex 1 is immensity—charting the inner turmoil of a diverse and far-flung group of Parisians linked only by their acquaintance with the titular Vernon—then the project of Vernon Subutex 2 is the intimacy of community. The narrative no longer bounces so wildly around Paris; it’s mainly contained within the Parc des Buttes-Chamont, where the now-unhoused Vernon Subutex spends most of his time.

When we left Vernon at the end of Subutex 1 he was feverish on a park bench, having extinguished the last of his acquaintances’ generosity through a combination of petty theft and betrayal. He was being chased, both by a spurned lover and a group of people after his one possession of value: a “last will and testament” recorded by the late pop superstar Alexandre Bleach.

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Early in Despentes’ second installment of the Subutex trilogy, he’s found. But rather than conflict, what follows is camaraderie. Having forgiven Vernon Subutex his range of transgressions, his acquaintances rally around him and he becomes the center of an unlikely group that assembles every day on the lawns of the Buttes-Chamont. They give him food, alcohol, weed, blowjobs, and gigs DJing at a local café. Vernon, freed by sleeping rough, is buoyed along on a narcotic strain of nervous breakdown. He’s almost achieved happiness.

So has his coterie. The same characters whose dashed hopes had curdled into anguish and anger in Subutex 1 are revitalized. Their inner monologues—masterfully translated into bone-dry English by Frank Wynne—are still self-aggrandizing and bitter by turns, but they’re all bolstered by something like hope.

It’s a startling shift. One of the things that makes Vernon Subutex 1 so dazzling is the fact that its narrative wheels around Paris, alighting on uniformly enraged characters as they sink furiously towards their respective rock bottoms. It’s both unrelenting and perversely compassionate.

In the second volume, however, the tension that electrified Subutex 1 evaporates, as does the characters’ defining anger. What’s left is reconciliation. A woman so ruthless she’s gained the nickname “The Hyena” is mollified by new love. Vernon’s ex-lover Sylvia, “having publicly threatened him with the most agonizing tortures, [had] simply given him a little kiss, relaxed and friendly, as though nothing untoward had happen.” Most of the flagrantly despicable characters have approached redemption: a serial wifebeater is now described as “a good team leader” and a man who was introduced as a violent neo-Nazi in Subutex 1 is now sobbing on the shoulder of a former victim.

Part of this abrupt turnaround has to do with the characters achieving closure and purpose. In Subutex 1, the search for the mysterious Alexandre Bleach tapes felt like a MacGuffin; in Subutex 2 the tapes are aired. They prove revealing; their narrative function is to furnish a central villain. He’s an evil for our time—a Weinstein-like figure that sounds like Mitch McConnell (“there are brilliant careers that cannot be derailed over some vulgar sex scandal. He warned her. She persisted”).

This has a two-pronged effect: part of Vernon Subutex 2 is devoted to a feminist revenge plot but—more importantly—it allows the cast a chance to play the good guys. They’re hardly heroic, but they unite against larger villainy. This feeling of unification is intensified by Vernon Subutex, whose DJ sets become increasingly hypnotic and whose very touch seems imbued with mystical properties. “Vernon’s hug envelops him and he becomes a bastion, a shield, a bandage. Sélim  surrenders, aware of the absurdity of the situation, but unable to escape from this comforting embrace.”

In Despentes’ hands, this dynamic is fraught with unsettling potential. Never a writer to shy away from the uglier aspects of humanity— her debut novel Baise-moi addresses rape and murder, Pretty Things tackles suicide and misogyny—we’re left to consider what will happen to a group of deeply unhappy people brought together through mutual rage and in thrall of a charismatic, addled central figure.

This ominousness is underscored by one of the few new additions to the large Subutex cast. Early in the novel we meet Charles, a sodden drunk who wins the lottery and is made promptly and deeply uneasy—”It is not a pleasant feeling, intense joy.” He keeps his winnings a secret from his partner Véro, who tells Charles about her dreams of North American travel.

It’s an aching scene, and Charles’ response is to call her a “whore” and a “fat fucking tourist.” He’s bewildered by the fact that the shift in his own fortunes has left him suddenly open to the poignant realities of others. Misery is effective insulation, Despentes suggests, because it creates a comforting, necessary narcissism. Being stripped of that can feel violating, and can provoke violence.

This casts a pall over the rest of the novel. Now that the haunted, all-too-human population of Vernon Subutex is being bombarded with the poignancy that comes on the heels of feelings of ease, what ugliness might they unleash?
Ultimately, Vernon Subutex 2 doesn’t suggest that the cast of the trilogy is slated for a happily-ever-after. Instead, the sudden release of pressure feels sinister. The tide of misery has gone out too abruptly, and the reader is left to anticipate it crashing again in Subutex 3 with redoubled, tsunami-like force.

Rebecca Rukeyser is a fiction writer and teacher. She lives in Berlin.

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