The Vernon Subutex trilogy, by French author Virginie Despentes, concludes this month with the U.S. release of its final installment’s much-anticipated English translation. Widely acclaimed, the first novel in the series, initially published here in 2019, charts its protagonist, a former record-store owner, as he descends into homelessness, a Parisian odyssey across couches and guest rooms and girlfriends. It brought Despentes to prominence in the U.S., but her other works remain less known, despite being some of her best—including a 2006 manifesto-cum-memoir, King Kong Theory, which Farrar, Straus and Giroux is publishing alongside the last Subutex book.
In France, Despentes is perhaps a more embattled figure than she is here, beloved by some and reviled by others. She came up in the supposedly post-feminist 80s, starting on the pill at 14, leaving home at 17, and then, in her 20s, becoming a sex worker. “I was a million miles from feminism,” she writes in King Kong Theory, “not out of a lack of solidarity or awareness, but because, for a long time, my gender didn’t really stop me from doing much of anything.” Here, she is railing against nostalgia for a time before the sexual revolution, before the feminist revolution, when women supposedly had it better. But despite the “horizons unfurled” by those two respective movements, things weren’t all roses.
In King Kong Theory, Despentes describes the night that she was gang-raped, the same year she left home. She had a knife in her pocket, which she “casually brandished in those generally chaotic times” of punk shows and hitchhiking but that she didn’t think to use against her attackers, instead only hoping that they wouldn’t find it: “I’m angry at a society that educated me without teaching me to wound a man if he tries to fuck me against my will,” she writes. “Especially when this same society has drummed into me the idea that it is a crime I should never get over.”
Hot off the Presses
Despentes’s first novel, 1993’s Baise-Moi, about two young women, both sex workers, who set off on a killing spree after one is gang-raped, riled up the French literary public. Her 2000 film adaptation of the story, which, according to Despentes, was decried (mostly by women) for condoning violence as a solution to rape, was banned from French theaters. “As usual, it’s a double bind,” Despentes writes in King Kong Theory. “On the one hand, we’re told this is the worst thing that can happen, on the other, that we shouldn’t defend ourselves or exact revenge.”
A book-length, very sensible rant, King Kong Theory addresses Despentes’s critics while taking on the uneasy, contradictory demands of contemporary gender: impossible beauty standards; panicked and false moralizing over pornography; and a world that views sex workers as both victims and pariahs.
Not every point made is particularly new—Despentes is incredulous, for instance, about the well-trodden web of lies behind conventionally masculine and feminine traits—but it’s all argued with an energizing ferocity.
Despentes’s 2000 film adaptation of her debut novel, Baise-Moi, was banned from French theaters.
Despentes also wisely points out how these various constraints are inter-related, connecting along a vector of money, in part by looking to the areas where women’s power has increased. “Powers granted by a sick state,” she says, “are necessarily suspect.” Mothers, she argues, are now viewed as sitting at the apex of femininity—everyone’s buying into the logic of “Mother knows best.” In view of the steadily rightward shift she detects in Europe and elsewhere, Despentes suggests this idolization is a “domestic echo of what is happening in society: the surveillance state knows better than we do what we should eat, drink, smoke, ingest, what’s appropriate for us to watch, to read, to understand,” and so on and so forth. Individuals are infantilized, she argues, to prepare the “collective body for a return to Fascism.”
In the Vernon Subutex novels, most of Despentes’s characters have stepped off, or been forced off, psychological, financial, and political hamster wheels. They have sacrificed society’s illusory protections—a husband, a home, a respectable job—for the (limited) freedoms offered by a life on the margins.
Her feminism is likewise targeted at outsiders. Despentes writes “from the realms of the ugly,” she says in King Kong Theory, for “all those excluded from the great meat market of female flesh.” Individuality is paramount to Despentes, a self-proclaimed punk, and this makes for one of the book’s most exciting aspects. It condemns the systemic traps that are designed to trip us up, to keep us from doing what we want, least of all revolting, and urges, “Seize your independence”—without, critically, telling you what to do with it. Exercising our freedoms might get in the way of the Fascistic turn Despentes sees the world taking.
There may also be some upsides to the bottoming out of society: people—like, for instance, men—who have historically been more protected by this narrowing bloc of the powerful may soon have no choice but to get pissed off and disillusioned, too. “Employment is collapsing? The family is imploding? Good!,” Despentes writes. “This automatically challenges notions of masculinity. More good news. We’ve already had enough of this shit.”
Clementine Ford is an Associate Editor for AIR MAIL