Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes

Apocalypse Baby BY Virginie Despentes. The Feminist Press at CUNY. Paperback, 352 pages. $17.
The cover of Apocalypse Baby

“I am furious with a society that has educated me without ever teaching me to injure a man if he pulls my thighs apart against my will, when that same society has taught me that this is a crime from which I will never recover,” Virginie Despentes writes in King Kong Theory, her 2006 manifesto about quintessential feminist questions of rape, sex work, and beauty standards. Despentes is a French writer and director who owes most of her fame—or notoriety—to Baise-moi, the violent novel-turned-film about two mistreated female protagonists whose rage is resolved only by remorseless, indiscriminate killing.

A preoccupation with unexpected outlets for righteous female anger is still evident in her latest work, the novel Apocalypse Baby. Here again we meet two newly acquainted women united in a pursuit. This time, they’re looking for a missing girl, Valentine, though they have no faith in their ability to help her, should they manage to track her down at all. As in any good noir novel, their efforts are doomed from the start. They encounter a string of lazy and craven adults (including François, Valentine’s novelist father; Vanessa, her estranged, supremely beautiful mother; and Yacine, her cousin and lover) who have only done damage to the missing fifteen-year-old, though none of them admits as much, or would be particularly troubled by the idea if they did. Narcissism, dishonesty, and misanthropy run through the core of almost every supporting character—another noir convention. Despentes subverts the genre norms she plays with, though, by giving us an uncharismatic female investigator, Lucie, with a queer woman detective, the Hyena, for a partner.

Hard-boiled private eyes are generally respected for their cynical wisdom, but here age and experience are not badges of strength. Aging is repeatedly viewed as an ominous force pushing its victims ever closer to irrelevance. “Not so long ago, I was still thirty,” Lucie tells us at the start. “Anything could happen.” Now nearly forty, she’s hanging on to a job for which she’s woefully unqualified because she despairs of ever finding other work. The Hyena is hyper-capable, smart, and fearless, and yet she too is no stranger to the threat of obsolescence. “You’re getting close to thirty, right?” asks a boss from her past. “Someone younger will come along one day soon, and take your place.”

In a culture fixated on youth, this is everyone’s fate, but women, forced to trade on their youthful looks in both personal and professional contexts, feel it most acutely. Valentine’s mother, Vanessa, for example, has always “slept for profit . . . a poor girl who’d drifted from one mediocre marriage to another, collecting her derisory capital.” She rejects her daughter partly because Valentine makes her “realize her age, with cruel sharpness,” and drives home the sense that Vanessa is “unquestionably one of the ones who will soon be on the way out.”

Still, being young is no guarantee of good treatment either. Far from inspiring tenderness or compassion, Valentine’s youth only irritates those around her, especially since she isn’t conventionally beautiful. Valentine’s father, for instance, can only muster up this level of insight into his daughter’s unhappiness: “When she wears short little dresses like other girls her age, she looks like a rugby player.” Meeting Valentine for the first time in more than ten years, Vanessa’s reaction is to ask her “why she didn’t watch her weight a bit better . . . . She’s rather reserved. And very badly dressed.” Yacine, whom Valentine loves, diagnoses her as “completely nuts,” “totally lacking in self-esteem,” and “beyond help.” When sex with her becomes too emotionally potent for him, he makes their last encounter anal sex in an alley, and tells her never to contact him again.

For those perpetrating them, these cruelties are justified by their inevitability. “There is no dignity, there is no gentleness,” the Hyena tells Lucie. “That’s how it is, that’s the real world. I didn’t invent it.” Almost everyone resolutely abdicates responsibility; no one feels guilt except the injured party. Yacine conveniently sees Valentine as “too trivial to be distressed.” Of her encounter with a neo-Nazi rock band, Valentine says she “asked for it,” dismissing what Lucie suspects was gang rape as merely “a bad night; [I] didn’t care.” In Baise-moi, a character who has been raped says: “I can’t keep assholes from getting into my pussy, so I haven’t left anything valuable there.”

For the post-adolescents in Apocalypse Baby, self-absorption only increases with time. They obsess about age—thirty is the magic number; anything after it is a downward slide—because it simultaneously allows them self-pity and an excuse for their lack of success. François was “still under thirty” when he believed he’d be awarded the Prix Goncourt, as was Lucie when she thought she might find a well-paying job she liked. The adults around her are afraid of being replaced but for Valentine, looking into the future with virtually no past behind her, the fear is precisely that they will be. They’re certain to keep reproducing themselves—the machine is self-perpetuating. “You have to intervene,” she thinks. “Into this sordid reality. Stop things just going on the same old way, at all costs.”

Despentes’s female characters have never been exempt from the misogyny around them, which they sometimes participate in or help maintain. Baise-moi’s main characters murder women as well as men. And in Apocalypse Baby, there is no great female solidarity. It’s a study of women whose lives are influenced by sexism and occasional male violence, but who don’t act primarily in response to them. Despentes began to walk this tightrope in King Kong Theory, examining patriarchal injustices while resisting the consequent temptation to define women’s lives solely in opposition to men’s actions. There, she writes: “Ours has always been the gender of endurance, courage, and resistance. Not that we had the choice.”

Women may often respond to the ugliness they suffer at the hands of men with a self-protective striving to reinforce the norm—that’s the realization Vanessa comes to when the encounter with her daughter forces her to examine her life in its entirety. As Baise-moi suggests, destructive, anarchic revolt may be the only effective response, the surest way to break the cycle, if only temporarily.

Without giving away the details, it’s worth noting that Apocalypse Baby’s bombastic climax is poorly developed and so carries little emotional weight. Yet it successfully makes a larger point: There is a power in the relentlessly active Valentine (“a valiant little pinball,” as Lucie calls her) that no one has bothered to nurture or direct. Her father regards her copious energy as burdensome: “She employs it full time to get on his nerves.” And she knows her mind is a threat to any connection she could make with a man: “She distrusted her own intelligence, which would have driven her away from him.” Sex is the only remaining outlet for her powers, and it’s one that leaves her unsatisfied, full of “vague shame.” When Yacine recognizes her strength, he responds only with fear and abuse.

Valentine is trapped in a bind reminiscent of the one Despentes identified in King Kong Theory: Girls are regularly condemned as silly and slutty, while every circumstance conspires to keep them that way; they’re told they are permanently endangered, while the notion that they should fight back seems beyond imagining. No one tells Valentine that she deserves more than the indignities heaped on her. For most of the book, she is all resource and no tools. No wonder her attitude evolves into blasé nihilism. Despentes has once again created a wronged female character who takes a weapon in hand. Those who underestimate her are ultimately the ones punished.

Charlotte Shane is a writer living in New York.