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Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes

October 7, 2012 27 comments

Apocalypse Bébé by Virginie Despentes. 2010. Available in German and Italian. Will be available in English (UK) in June 2013.

Virginie Despentes is a French writer born in 1969. Her first novel, Baise-moi (Do I have to translate?) was made into a film directed by Virginie Despentes herself and Coralie Trinh Ti. The film was first allowed for spectators over 16, then rated X (porn) and eventually rated for spectators over 18. I haven’t seen it, we’re in France, not in the US, when a movie is rated X, there’s really raw sex in there. I’m not particularly interested in that kind of movie. So she’s a writer I’d never read before and as you can easily imagine, political correctness is not in her line of work.

Apocalypse Bébé is her seventh novel; it was published in 2010 and won the Prix Renaudot. Valentine, 15, has disappeared. She’s the daughter of a rather famous writer, François Galtan. Her mother vanished from her life when she was a baby and her formidable grand-mother helped François raise her. Valentine is on the wild side of adolescence, she drinks, has sex with strangers, misses school and pretty much does anything to be intolerable and unmanageable to her father and mother-in-law. Valentine was under surveillance from an employee of a PI agency, Lucie, when she disappears. Lucie is a poor PI, she ended up in this job by chance and clings to it out of fear of unemployment. So when Valentine disappears, she’s a bit overwhelmed with her task to actually find her instead of just watching her. She decides to ask for the help of La Hyène, a specialist in such matters.

Valentine is the Ariadne’s thread between the characters we will discover. The chapters follow chronologically the researches Claire and La Hyène do to find Valentine. In such, the book borrows to thrillers. But it has also the tone of a road-movie, leading Lucie and La Hyène in the places Valentine used to go and to Barcelona.

In each chapter we change of point of view, seeing the moment through the eyes of Lucie, La Hyène, François, Claire, the mother in law, Vanessa, Valentine’s mother and different participants to the research. All the characters don’t fit in our world. Valentine, raised by an old vindictive woman and a self-centered womanizer as a father, has no guiding light, no frame of references to ground her. The story slowly unravels the last twelvemonth of her young life before her disappearance.

All the characters have their own issues. Lucie is dull, self-conscious and entangled in a life she follows instead of leading it. La Hyène is an incredible character, full of violence and lucidity. She flirts with illegality and doesn’t hesitate to use doubtful methods when she thinks they’re needed. She has no moral compass and we’ll know where it comes from. Galtan is a pathetic writer, always looking for attention from the media, not quite detached from his mother and married to a woman he cheats on regularly. Claire is desperate and frightened. She thought that living her life according to the rules would bring her happiness but it didn’t and she feels betrayed. Valentine scares her with her raw violence, her lack of manners. Through Vanessa’s family we have a glimpse of society in the banlieues and the way general rules don’t apply there.

With Valentine as a thread and the different characters as a pattern, Despentes weaves a tapestry of today’s French society. She’s abrupt, nasty and provocative. She shows the country behind the curtains and analyses it without kindness. She points out the violence in the suburbs, the underground world. The ending is chilling and resonates with the current news, but I can’t say more to avoid spoilers. Her style is powerful, using street language when the character’s voice needs it. She catches the essence of our time. She’s as provocative as Houellebecq but for me, she succeeds where he fails. Houellebecq is a man of the 20th century. The two novels I read are provocative but in the past. They are based on the angst of the white male with a language that didn’t hit the mark. Virginie Despentes is a feminist, a lesbian I believe, and her light on our world is resolutely in the 21st century. Like Houellebecq, her vision of our society is dark and rather desperate but unlike Houellebecq she shows it with the means of our time. Her characters aren’t depressed, they adjust.

It’s good to read a novel different from an intimate drama, different from the story of a dysfunctional family only. Valentine’s family is dysfunctional but it’s not the theme of the book. Max wrote an entry about Cosmopolis and the creative cowardice of Anglo-American literature where he explains that, to him, contemporary Anglo-Saxon writers fail to capture our age. In her own trashy way, I think that Virgine Despentes succeeds in this. Her novel doesn’t sound like the product of a writing class but the expression of her gut feeling about our world.

I sure want to read another of her books.

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