International Man Booker 2018 Review #4: ‘Vernon Subutex One’ by Virginie Despentes – A Picaresque Tour of Modern Paris

When should you read this book? Whenever you need a mood boost – it’s a pure delight.

If we’re talking first impressions, then I wouldn’t have thought Vernon Subutex would tick my boxes. It’s about a forty-something has-been of a record shop owner who, having fallen on bad times, takes a sofa-hopping tour of old friends in Paris to keep himself off the streets.

Scrabbling around for anything he can flog to make a quick buck, he remembers that he has a couple of tapes of rock star Alex Bleach, his old friend, recently deceased. But Alex’s last recordings might be of interest to more weird and wonderful characters than Vernon was counting on…

Now, I’m the kinda gal that looks for lots of tension and drama in my everyday reads. So a book that would involve me chasing a middle-aged man around Paris wasn’t something I would naturally have picked up.

This is where the beauty of the reading list comes in, though, because it was an unexpected delight – and is definitely one of my books of the year.

Meet Vernon

Vernon Subutex – the man, the myth, the legend.

So much of this novel’s power comes from the characterisation of its main character, who despite being a down-and-out, is irresistibly likeable. Yes, he does run out on women. Yes, he is totally irresponsible and fairly pathetic in most ways. And yet…

There is something so charming about Vernon that it is impossible not to like him, as much as he exasperates.

He is a sort of hapless hero, as he sofa surfs from one strange acquaintance to another across the city.


Despentes’ Paris

On his travels, Vernon manages to meet a whole cross-section of modern Parisian society – and it’s the perfect chance for Despentes to skewer most of France’s current political issues.

We encounter a hard-line right-winger, a couple of neo-Nazis, several pornstars, a young girl embracing conservative Islam, a transsexual Brazilian immigrant…

Despentes manages to inhabit all of their consciousnesses so easily and so naturally that it allows her to explore the divides in French society.

When we hear from a supporter of the hard right in one chapter and a young girl finding comfort in religion in the next, we start to understand what Despentes has to say about why these ruptures have begun to appear.

France, of course, is a country where the secular vs religious debate rages. Yet Despentes navigates this with a sense of humour, while always keeping French political reality in her (satirical) sights.

A novel for our times

Vernon Subutex lives firmly in the smartphone age.

Not only does Vernon’s record shop meet an untimely demise now everybody has their iPod headphones in, but the characters in the novel seem to primarily communicate on Facebook.

Some of their habits are far too familiar (I’m thinking specifically of a scene where a journalist tries to seduce Vernon into responding to her messages, constantly refreshing and refreshing her Facebook tab to see if he has responded).

It’s an interesting take on how we communicate and makes Despentes commentary on society seem all the more accurate.

Overall, Vernon Subutex gets a big thumbs up from me. It’s difficult to capture in the space of this review all the ways this book is weird and unexpected, so I all I can ask is that you pick it up and read it as soon as possible.

I, on the other hand, will certainly be picking up the next two books in the series.

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Has anyone else read Vernon Subutex?

Buy a copy of Vernon Subutex using my Amazon link.

Next up: The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai…

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