Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes.

Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes. 2015 (Not available in English)

Despentes_vernonIWhat a disappointment! I was looking forward to reading Virginie Despentes’s new novel after enjoying Apocalypse Bébé and Teen Spirit.

Vernon Subutex is the name of the main character, a former record dealer whose professional life was destroyed by digital music. We’re all aware of what happened to the music industry with the development of internet, P2P and music in mp3 files instead of CDs. So Vernon’s store sunk and he sunk with it. His financial situation worsens and when his friend Alex dies, he doesn’t have anyone anymore to help him with his rent and he’s evicted from his apartment. Alex is not a guy-next-door kind of friend, he’s a rock star. And Vernon has tapes where Alex talked about himself. Surely, such precious material is worth money?

That brought me to page 120 out of 393, of the first volume. (The second one was released this month and there’s a third one scheduled for later). Although Despentes is still punchy in her style, I couldn’t care less about the story. I heard her talk about her novel at the Fête du Livre de Bron and I expected something more about society’s shortcomings. She explained our society is uncompromising for the weak and Vernon’s situation spiraled out of control. I expected to sympathise with Vernon.

Instead, I thought Vernon was a bit of a Peter Pan. He never wanted to grow up and he now resents ageing even if he doesn’t complain about it.

Passé quarante ans, tout le monde ressemble à une ville bombardée. After forty, everybody looks like a town after a bombing.

He’s more in a mood of “where the hell did those years go?” He failed to acknowledge his professional world was changing, he failed to branch out when it was time. Perhaps it was such a strong wave that the whole music industry didn’t see it coming. His friends or so call friends are all the artistic/media world (rock stars, rock journalist, screenwriter or working on TV) I wasn’t interested at all in their angst. I could imagine a sordid plot was about to explode about Alex’s recordings and that it would be ugly and expose society’s greediness. But I didn’t feel like reading more about that.

So after seeing the book lying around for a while and never feeling like picking it up, I decided to stop reading it. It’s not a bad book at all. I still enjoyed Despentes’s style and she hasn’t lost her edge

Pedro s’appelait Pierre, mais il prenait tant de cocaïne qu’il avait hérité d’un prénom sud-américain. Pedro’s real name was Pierre but he sniffed so much cocaine that he inherited of a South-American name.

However, sometime, I could hear the English under her French, which is really odd. I noticed this sentence Emilie est devenue balistique sur la propreté. (Emilie went ballistic on hygiene) and later I spotted a Marque mes mots (mark my words) In both cases, it means absolutely nothing in French if you’re not aware of the English expressions. I truly love the English language but when you write in French, you don’t sabotage the beauty of the language by literally translating English expressions into French. It bothers me.

So, in a nutshell, I think she’s as talented as ever but that her Vernon Sullivan never engaged me. Her novel should have left me with a head full of rock music. Instead, it left me with a song by Renaud, P’tite Conne. In this song, Renaud describes the funeral of a young woman who died of an overdose and who came from social circles where drugs were accepted. See part of the lyrics:

Tu fréquentais un monded’imbéciles mondains

Où cette poudre immonde

se consomme au matin,


Où le fric autorise

à se croire à l’abri

Et de la cour d’assises

et de notre mépris


Que ton triste univers

nous inspirait, malins

en sirotant nos bières

ou en fumant nos joints…

You belonged to a worldOf stupid socialites

Where this disgusting powder

Is consumed in the early morning,


Where money allows you

To feel protected

From the Crown Court

And from the contempt


That your sad little world

Inspired us, smartasses

While we sipped our beers

Or smoked our pot…

Vernon Sullivan seemed a part of this sad delusional world and I left him there.

This was my second read of my #TBR20 project.




  1. June 18, 2015 at 9:45 pm

    Sorry to hear it was disappointing – I too was expecting more of a generalised critique of modern-day society (or France). I’ll probably try to find it at the library and give it a whirl, but it won’t be top of my list.


    • June 18, 2015 at 9:53 pm

      It seemed too Parisian to me. I’m not fascinated by the TV/journalists/rock milieu.
      I like common people with common jobs.


  2. June 18, 2015 at 10:31 pm

    I might like this so it’s too bad it’s not in English. I have a soft spot for books with anything to do about the music business.


    • June 19, 2015 at 8:10 pm

      It may make it into English. After all Apocalypse Bébé has been translated.
      So I guess you enjoyed High Fidelity?


      • June 19, 2015 at 9:36 pm

        Yes I did like it. Wasn’t that keen on the film though.


  3. June 19, 2015 at 9:16 am

    What a shame this one didn’t live up to your expectations. These changes in the way we listen to music have so many ramifications for the industry – they could provide a basis for all manner of interesting, hard-hitting stories. It sounds like a real missed opportunity.


  4. June 19, 2015 at 11:19 am

    Too bad that this was such a disappointment.

    I am interested in the world that this book describes and the plot sounds like very good idea.

    I can understand the English phrases creeping into the prose would be annoying.


    • June 19, 2015 at 8:16 pm

      I was surprised to discover these English-sounding phrases in the novel. I understand how it happens. When you spend a lot of time speaking English and reading in English, you end up mixing things. Just today I used “sauter aux conclusions” which is the literal translation of “jump to conclusions” and it doesn’t exist in French.
      I mostly wonder why it wasn’t spotted by the editor and amended by the writer.


  5. glooper
    March 7, 2016 at 11:42 pm

    I agree the novel is flawed but I did sympathise with Vernon and felt there were moments of brilliance and insight. I particularly liked:

    “Tant qu’on n’exerce pas le pouvoir, on n’a pas idée de ce que c’est. On pense que c’est s’asseoir à son bureau, donner des ordres, ne jamais être contrarié. On imagine que c’est une facilité. Au contraire, plus on s’approche du sommet, plus la lutte est rude. Plus on monte, plus les concessions coûtent. Et plus on doit en faire. Avoir du pouvoir, c’est garder le sourire quand on se fait casser les côtes par plus puissant que soi. Les humiliations sont violentes, tout en haut, et personne n’est là pour vous écouter si vous avez envie de geindre. C’est la cour des grands, pas le bac à sable pour les petits agneaux. Seuls les tout petits chefs jouissent de leur pouvoir, au-dessus – on ne connaît que la peur de se faire poignarder dans le dos, la rage des trahisons et le poison des fausses promesses.”

    “Until you exercise power, you have no idea what it is. You think that it is sitting at your desk, giving orders, never being thwarted. You imagine that it’s easy . On the contrary, the closer you get to the top, the harder the struggle. The higher you go, the more the concessions cost, and the more you have to make of them. To hold power is to keep smiling while your ribs are being broken by those more powerful than you. The humiliations are violent at the top, and no one is there to listen if you feel like whining. This is the big boys playground, not the sandpit for the little lambs. Only the little chiefs enjoy their power – further up there is but the fear of being stabbed in the back, the rage of betrayal and the poison of false promises.”


    • March 8, 2016 at 10:49 pm

      I was disappointed to be disappointed by Vernon Sullivan. I think Despentes is a great writer but I would have liked it more if it had been outside the journalist-publicist-TV milieu.


  6. Anne Dumas
    May 20, 2016 at 9:55 am

    It’s Vernon Subutex, not Sullivan!
    I loudly disagree, I adored these 2 tomes and can’t wait for the 3rd one. I found Despentes’s style very powerful and the gallery of characters very true to life.


    • May 20, 2016 at 10:26 pm

      You’re right, it is Vernon Subutex. I slipped because I can’t help thinking about Vernon Sullivan each time I see this title.

      I understand why you loved it. It’s probably a great series but it didn’t work for me. I think that Virginie Despentes is a talented writer, I just didn’t click with this one.


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