Is Virginie Despentes antidotal? She’s certainly been called a lot of things, but perhaps this ascription is rare. I’d argue it so.
After an exchange of wonderment about last spring’s birdsong blanketing of our respective, halted cities—LA and Paris—the revered and occasionally jeered French author tells me that after four years of living in Barcelona, she’d returned to France in 2010 to observe a perturbing, low-boil anxiety stewing in ubiquity. In response, Despentes commenced writing an extraordinary trio of books, the Vernon Subutex trilogy, published in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux—as thematically layered, multiplicative, entertaining, humorous, and bathing in contemporary ennui as anything you might seek out. “I was really amazed by a sensation of depression, of anxiety around me,” Despentes recalls, though there was, “much more money [here] than in Barcelona, more possibility to do things. But still—a stronger sense of helplessness and depression, and so these books were about that. About my coming back to Paris and discovering that many people were really affected, or changed, by the theories of the extreme rightwing—which was a surprise to me, because some of these people you expected it from, some of them absolutely not. And the way that this rhetoric touches people, changes people—even if you think you are intelligent enough to understand what goes through you.”
Indeed, Vernon is a discombobulated ball of thread—post-analog, post-Sarkozy, post-consumption, post-ambiguity, set to an incredible playlist of underground rock, punk, and fusion chiefly spun by its title character, a sort of average dude turned unlikely guru. Despentes imparts an honesty, a unilateral autonomy baked into every character (there’s a couple dozen), told through a fractal and tender, learned human lens. The series flat out rules—it’s so god damned enjoyable—and the third installment sees English translation in May.
Simultaneously, Despentes will see her decade old manifesto translated on the same date as the above’s third act—King Kong Theory—a cutting and incisive feminist credo for social upheaval. Despentes punctuates the series of essays with her experience of being raped in her early 20s, being censored, being punk, and her time as a prostitute (though she’ll note there is, ironically, no diminutive word for the corollary—the ‘customer’ is hardly on par?). She remarks, with surprise, at the book’s wide-reaching reception in France and Spanish-speaking countries in the years leading up to now, and more so on the groundswell of feminism and cultural reformation in today’s youth culture. “To me,” she reflects on contemporary young women, “the first thing [of note] is that they really consider themselves as full citizens. Not the second class citizen I was used to, we were all used to. They are able to be really fed up with masculinity, which was not even allowed when I was a young woman. And they are very of the internet—they are very able to find readings and texts and references and places to debate, which were very difficult to find when I was 20. Yeah, and heterosexuality has changed a lot too.”
Still, King Kong Theory—despite said improvements in surround—is hyper-astute and applicable to today. Today, though, sees scaled technology and a sort of shackling therein on a quite unfathomable scale—a condition Despentes finds remarkable. “It’s just senseless,” she remarks, “and it’s very new in Europe. I see an indulging that comes with technology, because it goes with you when you come back home, and you have to answer your emails. You come back home and you have to watch the Internet for stuff. But what strikes me more… is this sense of brutality [online]. Absolutely senseless brutality, and this makes you crazy, because you know you’re suffering for absolutely nothing, right?”
Despite it all, Despentes will soldier on and tell her stories, remarking that even though it’s bewildering, she loves the candor and ingenuity of technology hubs like TikTok, where youth culture thrives. “I suppose, my work as a writer is to be sincere,” she shares, “There is something about brutality and sincerity—something that can work.”
As for what’s next, a new book is in the works, one whereby the pandemic plays a role—she can’t, and won’t, shy from realism. As for what awaits, out there, on the horizon, away from her desk? “I realized I miss live music more than I would have thought,” she concludes, “I realized I miss—I miss everything. I miss the collective experience. I miss my body with very loud music. I miss the whole atmosphere of this kind of evening. The socialization—I miss it. I wouldn’t have ever thought about it before. I miss it and I miss dancing. I was not a huge dancer, but at the end of the day, I used to dance—sometimes—and I miss dancing with people.” Touché.