Double Dare Ya

Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi, Baise-moi (Rape Me), 2000. Manu (Raffaëla Anderson).
Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi, Baise-moi (Rape Me), 2000. Manu (Raffaëla Anderson).

ON THE NIGHT the French author Virgine Despentes was gang-raped, at age seventeen, she had a switchblade in her pocket but was too terrified to use it. “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,” she writes in her sweeping 2006 manifesto/memoir, King Kong Theory. Published in the United States in 2010, King Kong Theory was the work that made Despentes a revered cult figure among feminists in this country, though she’d been well known in France, as a novelist and filmmaker, for years. In the book, her characterization of rape as a product of systemic misogyny—but not something to define one’s life by—is woven into concise rants that together emphasize the intractable interconnectedness of feminist issues. Rarely a purely theoretical writer, Despentes draws on her experience in low-wage jobs and stints as a prostitute, stripper, and porn reviewer to fully depict the entanglements of class and gender. Her subjects range from the near inescapability of traditional standards of beauty to the marriage contract as a form of prostitution much more degrading to women than sex work itself (which is, in Despentes’s view, a way to claim agency) to the puritanical pressures women face from both sexes: We’re now “constantly policed, by men who are still poking their noses in our business and pointing out what is good and bad for us, and especially by other women, through the family, women’s magazines, and the prevailing public discourse.” And this means we can’t act with the untroubled, ostensibly postfeminist freedom Despentes reveled in during her punk-rock youth:

I became a prostitute and walked the streets in low-cut tops and high-heeled shoes owing no one an explanation, and I kept and spent every penny I earned. I hitchhiked, I was raped, I hitchhiked again. I wrote a first novel and published it under my own, clearly female first name, not imagining for a second that when it came out I’d be continually lectured to about all the boundaries that should never be crossed. . . . I wanted to live like a man, so I lived like a man.

This was no utopia, yet there’s something appealing about it: a glimmer of possibility that freedom for women wouldn’t require the forfeiture of individual will to either institutions or ideology. What happened?

Despentes’s work is both an answer to that question and an attempt to find an alternative. Her debut novel, Baise-moi (1993), follows two young women on a revenge sex-and-killing spree after one of them, Manu, is gang-raped. She frames the attack as a typical indignity, one of many fueling her rage, which, throughout the book, is somehow levelheaded. Her body is “like a car that you park in the projects, you don’t leave anything valuable in it ’cause you can’t keep it from being broken into,” as she calmly explains to her incredulous friend after the assault. The rapists, she reasons, have at least left her alive.

Since then, Despentes has published eight novels, a graphic novel, a collection of short stories, and King Kong Theory, and has adapted several works for film and TV, including the internationally controversial movie version of Baise-moi in 2000.The appearance of Despentes’s work in the US has been confusingly nonchronological, and the reception fairly quiet. Five of her books have been published here—those I’ve discussed, plus three other novels—mostly by the stalwart, scrappy Feminist Press; two more, the first two installments of her Vernon Subutex trilogy, are available in the UK (and thus accessible to intrepid English-language readers) but won’t be published in the US until 2019. (The third volume has yet to be translated.) Completed in French in 2017, the trilogy has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, is being adapted for television, and may give Despentes the wider recognition she deserves. (Or, since she’s likely unconcerned with that kind of thing, American readers the Virginie Despentes they didn’t know they needed.) As evidenced by Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle books and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, anglophone audiences’ resistance to foreign-language literature seems to soften when they’re presented with a series; the translation of the first Vernon book was short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018, and it will be published in America by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

When I interviewed Despentes for Broadly in 2015, she told me she believed that Vernon Subutex 1 had generated more attention than her previous work because the narrative centers on a man. “Suddenly I became a political writer,” she said of its publication. “‘Interesting stuff,’ ‘universal stuff,’ blah, blah, blah. I don’t believe it’s so important, the gender of the characters, but when you publish something with a boy, it’s easier” to attract readers, publishers, and reviewers. Except for a short novel and minor-character husbands, lovers, assailants, abusive bosses, and the like, she’d never written about men or even really considered it.

Her protagonists had always been frank female characters who gravitated toward the margins; runaways, punks, and heavy drinkers, they were usually angry—or at least over it—not much to look at, and engaged in tedious pursuits for money. Regarding sex, they were outwardly blasé but inwardly conflicted. Some of the men they became involved with had disturbingly misogynistic impulses and could turn violent; others were, as Despentes told me, merely resentful, “regular losers.” Pretty Things (1998), which was just published in English, concerns twins who are identical except that one is beautiful and the other ugly; with the help of a guy from a bar, they devise a scheme to become a single successful pop singer, pairing the ugly twin’s perfect pipes with the pretty one’s perfect face, but when the beauty jumps out of a window, her sister inherits her identity, which includes a potentially scandalous porn appearance that the ugly woman must spin to her advantage. Bye Bye Blondie (2004), published by the Feminist Press in 2016, examines heterosexuality and standards of femininity through Gloria, whom we see as both an enraged teenager in a mental institution—thanks, Dad!—and an enraged working-class adult refusing to conform to the social codes upheld by her well-to-do lover. And Apocalypse Baby, which won the Prix Renaudot upon being published in France in 2010 (it came out in the US five years later), follows a lesbian private investigator and her partner as they cynically tail the brats of the bourgeoisie. Though frequently categorized as “feminist pulp” or “noir,” these works are also rich in detail, emotionally precise, and caustically funny; the pulpy elements often feel superfluous. When I asked Despentes if she thought the Vernon books were otherwise different from her previous novels—the subtext being, Are they better?—she didn’t seem to think they were.

Set in contemporary Paris, where neo-Nazis and police descend equally violently on the homeless and “intelligent young people are no longer routinely left-wing,” Vernon Subutex 1 begins with our titular antihero barely subsisting, hopping around from gig to gig, having “watched as, in slow motion, things began to collapse.” It all comes crashing down when Vernon’s sexy, famous musician friend, Alex Bleach, who has been generously paying Vernon’s rent, dies of a drug overdose. Among Alex’s assets are a set of videotapes on which he recorded a self-interview, a wasted, “preposterous performance,” in which he slurs about art, society, and the meaning of life. Believing he can get some money for them, or else use them as an enticement to get mournful fans to offer up their couches, Vernon sets off Facebook-messaging old friends, treating the tapes like “Moses’ Tables of the Law.” (Having been out of his own mind when he watched Alex record them, Vernon is unaware that the tapes contain potentially explosive murder allegations.) The structure that emerges begins to resemble that of a Victorian novel: The stories of Vernon’s friends, friends of friends, lovers, enemies, and acquaintances form a mosaic depicting Gen X’s fitful transition to adulthood, which, despite their range of occupations (waitress/tattoo artist, screenwriter, housewife, student, porn star) and identities (straight, gay, black, devout Muslim, secular Muslim, trans), always seems to involve a choice between bourgeois domesticity and the abjection of barely scraping by. Many have come to the realization that, as Gloria puts it in Bye Bye Blondie, punk rock is “very poor preparation . . . for later life.”

IN 2008, the Spanish theorist Paul B. Preciado wrote about Despentes, with whom he had a long-term partnership, in Testo Junkie, a frenetic work of autotheory. He described the voice of King Kong Theory, which Despentes was writing around the time they met, as “the aristocratic brain of a futurist she-wolf lodged in the body of a hooker, the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner incarnated in a street dog.” Later in Preciado’s book, we see Despentes editing a film surrounded mostly by men—“one of them, at the same time as being above them all.” This duality—the radical voice in the hot body, the matter-of-fact wisdom espoused by the punk—informs all of Despentes’s work. While her characters are often queer and gender-bending, Despentes understands that stereotypical differences between men and women, born of patriarchal pressure but often exacerbated by bad personalities, aren’t necessarily inaccurate, either; she’s not afraid to drop a delightfully cutting generalization into the mind of an entitled, self-pitying male writer or bratty, attention-seeking girlfriend. Ultimately, as she writes in King Kong Theory, we’re all straitjacketed by the same stuff. “Today’s world is a long way from the Promised Land for all of us. Neither women nor men are happy here. And this has nothing to do with the respect of gender traditions. Women going back to the kitchen, putting on aprons and producing kids every time they fuck would have no impact at all on the failures of work, free enterprise, Christianity, or environmental sustainability.”

Despentes’s is a rare feminism that insists on the value of individual agency even as it acknowledges and criticizes a net of systemic pressures that seem to render that agency very difficult to exercise. The double-bind submission she resists—hyperawareness of one’s marginalization leading to the sense that it is impossible to overcome, even with a knife—is a recognizable feeling to feminists, but it’s not a feeling limited to women. In King Kong Theory, Despentes writes that the nanny state is a parallel for the domestic sphere: Citizens are “swaddled . . . relieved of their autonomy, their freedom to make mistakes, or to get into danger,” leaving them with the sense that conformity is inevitable. As her work has matured, Despentes has developed a more measured approach to that problem, one that allows the individual to continue to exist in a system that has made her life feel so constrained. To flout all expectations of conventional respectability—linked as they must be to class and gender and enforced not only by rightward-marching policy but also by the scores of hall monitors who roam social media—now requires significantly more willpower than it used to. Rejecting norms, though always difficult, seems to offer fewer payoffs for both the recession-hardened younger generation and the weary older one bewildered at how much better they had it. Millennials, Despentes writes in Vernon Subutex I, “had been raised to the rhythms of the Voice in the Big Brother house, a world in which the telephone can ring at any time to give the order to fire half of your colleagues. Eliminate thy neighbour is the golden rule of the games they have been spoonfed since childhood. How can one now expect them to find it morbid?”

Though Despentes usually writes about women, her characters are united less by gender than by an ability to evade or alter what might otherwise be a demographic fate. If there’s an essential difference between the Vernon trilogy and the novels she wrote before, it’s that the earlier works draw a clearer boundary between what is accepted and what is not. Characters exist on either side—if not clashing then at least rubbing up against each other, creating friction. The transactions of sex and power that take place in the slick record executive’s office are just as debased as those in back alleys. But in the trilogy, even villains are offered a kind of sympathy, and the socioeconomic relationships are more realistically fluid. This means the false binaries she lamented in previous novels—between men and women, bourgeois and homeless—give way to a message that is dire but, crucially, not fatalist.

Vernon’s “collapse” into homelessness is depicted with specificity and sensitivity, but he never quite hits rock bottom. Instead, he experiences something of a rebirth. His friends eventually find him sleeping in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. But when they offer to help him get back on his feet, he decides he would rather be destitute than go back to the life he was living. Instead of abandoning him once again, as his band of more experienced homeless friends suspects will happen, his social circle fills in around him, forming a ragtag community that even welcomes conservatives. If the results are occasionally cheesy—there’s a utopian rave in a forest; Vernon is beloved for his transcendent DJ skills—the point is remarkable: “Already,” Vernon thinks when he first accepts that he is homeless, “the lives of working people seem remote. They are in a desperate hurry to be somewhere, ashamed of their fear that they might end up like him if they don’t slog their guts out . . . their lives are shit.”

Lauren Oyler is a writer based in New York.