Artists like Despentes, who came of age in the shadow of AIDS and the ensuing explosion of blood- and sex-centered queer art, were never striving to enter the canon or leave a legacy; they were simply interested in truthfully capturing all the moments in which they were dying. Serpent’s Tail’s short-lived High Risk Books imprint (1993–’97) captured the spirit of these artists and their content — a wasteland of drugs, sex work and play, and violence; the fast-paced ephemera that make up a life not taken for granted, where the content of every moment is unexpected, often painful, and yet a gift. Despentes’s style is rooted in these truths.
Despentes’s first book, Baise-Moi (alternately translated as Fuck Me or Rape Me), was published in France in 1994, followed not long after by a film version that tested the famously sex-positive country with its content — a gang rape followed by a random spree of homicides, committed by two women who seem very seriously not to give a fuck. Driven to kill, they entertain themselves with drugs and sex and companionship along the way. Though their motives are never examined, the gang rape at the beginning seems very clearly to establish the rules of the game. After much controversy, the film version of Baise-Moi was nearly banned from French cinemas. Despentes went on to write several punk pulp novels before King Kong Theory — her collection of essays on women, porn, and sexual violence — appeared in 2006.
While her pulp writing was more easily discarded by those who would pigeonhole her as an unserious lesbian punk genre-writer, the sprawling and expansive Vernon Subutex trilogy, the first volume of which appeared in 2015, was a much more challenging enterprise. The author’s movement from the margins to a queasy center came with the news that Vernon Subutex 1 had been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize of 2018. Everything changed, it seemed, once Despentes put a straight, white male at the center of her fiction. But then again, maybe that’s not what she did.
I had the good fortune to talk with Despentes over Zoom on March 26, shortly before Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s release of Frank Wynne’s excellent translation of the final book of her trilogy, Vernon Subutex 3 (published in France in 2017), and their reissue of King Kong Theory. On the day we spoke, Despentes had recently arrived in Barcelona, where she frequently visits her partner, a tattoo artist called La Rata, who remained in the room during our virtual visit, listening on headphones to Eddy de Pretto, a queer sensation from the suburbs of Paris. “It’s a one-room apartment,” Despentes told me. The walls behind her were bare, a toaster oven, some fruit, and a few books visible on a console. She asked if I minded if she smoked; I said I had just finished a cigarette and that I wished we could be meeting in person so that I could offer her one, plus a coffee. She gave a big smile and sat back at the table, the same one, it turns out, where she writes. Her straight brown hair was parted in the middle — the same as in every photo of her, unmoved by any passing trend. No makeup, earnest face, lazy faded blue eyes. She is genial, gracious, humble.
Despentes has mined her own life considerably for her work, including the novels and two films, and the landmark events of her life are by now well known. At 15, she was institutionalized against her will, a situation explored in Bye Bye Blondie (novel, 2004; film, 2012). At 17, she survived a gang rape while hitchhiking with a friend, an event depicted in Baise-Moi, and the explicit and implicit subject of much of King Kong Theory, where she refers to it as “a foundation stone. Of who I am as a writer, as a woman who is no longer a woman.” She turned to sex work for a few years, “turning tricks” in 1991, just months before writing her first novel in a blizzard of cocaine. The 2000 film version, which she co-directed, was heavily censored in France. At 30, she gave up alcohol and drugs, and declared herself a lesbian at 35. The dissolution of her relationship with Paul Preciado was well documented in his 2008 book Testo Junkie, which details his transition via testosterone injections from female- to male-identified.
In King Kong Theory, Despentes elaborates on the connection between turning to sex work and writing Baise-Moi:
There is a genuine connection between writing and prostitution. Emancipating yourself, doing that which isn’t done, opening up your private self, laying yourself open to the judgment of others, accepting exclusion from the group. More importantly, as a woman: becoming a public woman. Being read by anyone and everyone, talking about things that should remain secret, being exposed in the newspapers. […] Becoming a novelist, making easy money, inspiring revulsion and fascination in equal measure: the public shame is comparable to being a whore.
I noted to her that meeting with random strangers and subjecting yourself to their questions must be awkward or uncomfortable at best. She responded dryly but with goodwill, “It’s not my favorite part of the job. I’m not talkative.”
Vernon Subutex is the pseudonym of the unassuming man at the center of an ensemble cast of characters drawn together, in volume one, after the overdose death of superstar musician Alex Bleach, who was a mainstay at the local record shop Vernon ran before Bleach hit stardom and the rent for the store became unsustainable. Bleach had been helping to support Vernon, and his death sends Vernon into a spiral that leads to homelessness. As Vernon acclimates to life on the streets, his circle widens to include a range of social misfits — a porn queen and her transman boyfriend, a tattoo artist, an animal-loving racist, a private eye named The Hyena (a recurrent character in Despentes’s work), a leftie wifebeater, a hefty homeless woman named Olga, a young Muslim law student and her father, and a sadistic film producer, among many others who move in and out of the three sprawling volumes. Eventually, Vernon’s talent as a DJ begins to draw a larger crowd until, in volume three, the raves he hosts become an underground sensation.
Vernon is less a charismatic protagonist than the magnetic center of a growing crowd — neither its heart nor its leader, but an everyman functionary. The group itself is the real hero, an anarchic gathering of souls drawn to each other and held together by music and mutual aid. The book’s structure can also feel loosely anarchistic — sometimes the chapters are told from one person’s perspective, sometimes they’re more dispersed; there is no discernible order. As the group comes to form an amorphous outdoor community — bringing to mind the Occupy movement that arose organically out of necessity and desire — Vernon serves at once as a gravitational pull and a placeholder. The hero is the posse.
Vernon — the straight, white, down-on-his-luck, likable man at the center — serves Despentes’s needs. She’s gotten people’s attention, so now she can say important things. I asked her about the decision to change the original central character from a woman to a man, and she replied:
I nearly always worked with female characters. Then I thought it’s more logical if it’s about punk to have a male character with female friends. When I published it, I was really amazed how it changed the reading — not only in France, in general. Because when readers are reading about a male character, I think they are ready to think it’s political and that never happens with a female character — in my case, it never happened before. A woman can’t be universal, she can’t be talking about the world, she’s talking about her own particular case. It has to be personal. With Vernon, all of a sudden it was “a generation,” “the whole City,” it was really political for the first time in my writing.
Second, I was amazed by how much tenderness readers show for a male character. If he was a female, the fact that he’s sleeping with everybody he encounters, for example, would have been a tremendous problem: this woman behaves badly, she treats herself poorly. But if it was a male character, suddenly it was destiny, it was misery. It has never been questioned how much he sleeps with nearly everybody. And so, I discovered that working with a male character is really nicer as a writer. Readers are softer, they don’t look for how he fails, they are with him. When you are with a female character, even female readers, they look for how she did this to herself, what she did wrong.
The part about readers being more tender toward a male character ached even though I could recognize it as true. I asked her what we could do about this, as writers, and she responded:
First of all, we hope that things are really changing, and we keep on going. I think this is changing now, the mentality. In my opinion, it is a revolution. And I think young people are going to be able to be different readers, with tenderness for women. But for people my age, they are very much tougher on female characters. Second of all, in my case, we use male characters more often, because why not? To make them do things more easily, people are more comfortable. I can handle male characters. I’m okay with that. I have the feeling that I am witnessing a deep change about gender in the younger generation, women and men. And I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. I don’t know what’s coming next but now I think we have an audience ready to accept female characters differently. So, we try again. I hope that in 10 years it will be possible for even a Black female to represent the world. About this I am optimistic. And about the younger generation I am also optimistic. They are building something new, something possible because of what we did before.
While she had accumulated several literary prizes for her previous work, it’s hard to overlook the fact that her first novel with a male protagonist earned her a place on the Booker shortlist and widespread critical acclaim. While some American critics have continued to call her work “sloppy,” seeing it as too angry, “aggressive” (even “startlingly aggressive”), and “filled with bitterness,” I very much enjoyed my time with the misfits. The writing flows from poetic to punchy, and Despentes shows remarkable skill in differentiating the dozens of voices. American readers will now have the pleasure of being able to binge-read all three volumes, experiencing not only their bold engagement of a range of social and political issues but also their fundamentally optimistic vision of a community that organically reconstitutes itself, managing again and again to save itself, to endure.
Despentes told me that the explosion of queer art ushered in by the AIDS epidemic in the late ’80s and ’90s had deeply influenced her work, as had the punk tradition of the preceding decade:
Kathy Acker was the beginning of everything for me. When her work was published in France, when I discovered her work, it was really a major influence for me as a young writer. And we in France also have a very strong tradition of queer writers who died in the ’80s or early ’90s, but I was also really involved in punk music and it was the same for all the same reasons — many of us died really young. It was also really different because in the ’80s and ’90s, you didn’t think of becoming famous doing what we were doing. When we started, we didn’t think of fame, even less of having money. That changed. We come from a very different background. And they influence me still now.
I’m now reading Sarah Schulman. Her work about gentrification in New York really impacted me because I never thought of the city like that, what AIDS meant in Paris also in terms of gentrification. I’m very impacted by queer writers. And obviously I didn’t learn to write thinking of posterity or Balzac or Zola. I read them, I enjoyed them, but I didn’t identify with them; it’s another culture.
And yes, we learned to know that people were going to die in absolute indifference. That is what was really strong about AIDS when you compare the situation to COVID. So many people were erased in absolute indifference, that is how we grew up. There was AIDS and there was also heroin in my camp, a lot of people were dying before 30 in absolute indifference. We grew up different. That’s for sure.
Where most novels so steeped in drugs tend to end with the protagonist’s hard-earned abstinence and recovery, Despentes’s trilogy also stands out as a work of creative harm reduction — a nonjudgmental framework that sees drugs as a part of life with both good and bad consequences, a much more measured and realistic approach (think needle exchanges to stop HIV spread and safe consumption sites to counter overdose deaths). Subutex itself is one name of the generic drug buprenorphine, approved in 2002 as a game-changing medication administered by doctors to prevent opioid and heroin withdrawal and to reduce cravings. While some of Despentes’s characters overdose, there are others who routinely enjoy drugs and alcohol, without obvious harmful consequences. And while Vernon eventually decides to forgo both altogether, as Despentes herself has, he does so in a quiet, inconsequential sentence.
“I’m very interested in drugs,” Despentes told me,
because we are not supposed to use drugs but nearly everybody does. It’s like pornography, it’s at the center of things. It’s an economic superpower, it’s everywhere, it’s important in the lives of people. So, when I’m thinking of the people around me, I think of the drugs they’re using, or overusing, or using correctly. It says a lot about life, what kind of drug you need to use, what kind of drug you need to abuse. I’m very interested in that field. It’s in the room. It’s in the middle of the room, in general. In my next novel, it’s a huge part of the story.
The drug of choice for the trilogy’s protagonist — this anarchic group — is music. Music holds them together, and Vernon plays the tapes Alex Bleach left for him to varying healing effects. The volumes are scored with an accompanying playlist, and specific songs are referenced throughout, with each character expressed through their taste in music (you can see a playlist I put together for the first two volumes here, and for the third volume here). I asked Despentes how she used music for her writing and how she managed to get into and remember all these different voices. She replied:
The music of all three volumes was Leonard Cohen, Leonard Cohen, Leonard Cohen, who I never listened to before. For every character, I thought to really define the characters by what they were listening to. I worked in a record shop in my 20s for four years, so I tried to think about who came there and what they would be listening to now. And it was an important part of the characters. What they’re listening to is supposed to be important.
I always thought about what their flats would look like, what their living rooms and bedrooms looked like, taking elements from friends, where they live in Paris. For many of them, I had certain writers in mind, and I would spend one or two days reading one particular writer to try to get a different sound. Sometimes it worked, sometimes less so. But I tried to change the voices. Apocalypse Baby [her 2010 novel] had the same system, of several characters with several voices. This was my technique. I also tried to give each of the characters, even the worst characters, something from me that I liked. For example, Xavier, who is really racist, has a dog and I love my dog. Or Sylvie, who is very far from me, the bourgeois woman, she has my habit of looking for horoscopes every morning. So, I tried to put something from me inside every character, to have some sympathy or empathy.
For example, with Charles, the old man who wins the lottery, it’s quite obvious that I read Bukowski before writing him. And I read also Raoul Vaneigem, a Situationist, very well known in France. I read a very long interview with him and took some elements of his biography. For Sylvie, I read Françoise Sagan because she was bougie, classy, a little bit lost in mind. Sometimes I think it shows, sometimes less, but I tried to get a particular voice for every character.
I asked her about Olga, my favorite character, the homeless woman who comes to the rescue. She smiled. “Olga is really the closest to me,” she said. “She has my rough energy. Very direct.”
Born in Zagreb, Croatia/Yugoslavia, Nina Herzog holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing has appeared in Tin House, Tricycle Magazine, LARB, and Words without Borders, among other publications. She is currently writing a book about her experience with ketamine as treatment for treatment-resistant depression.