Vernon Subutex 1

by Virginie Despentes

Other authorsFrank Wynne (Translator.)
Paperback, 2019




New York : FSG Originals/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.


Vernon Subutex was once the proprietor of Revolver, an infamous music shop in Paris, where his name was legend throughout Paris. By the 2000s, however, with the arrival of the internet and the decline in CD and vinyl sales, his shop is struggling, like so many others. When it closes, Subutex finds himself with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Before long, his savings are gone, and when the mysterious rock star who had been covering his rent suddenly drops dead of a drug overdose, Subutex finds himself launched on an epic saga of couch-surfing, boozing, and coke-snorting before finally winding up homeless. Just as he resigns himself to life as a panhandler, a throwaway comment he once made on Facebook takes the internet by storm.

User reviews

LibraryThing member baswood
I think the clue is in the surname Subutex. There is certainly a lot going on in the subtext of this novel. I have just resurfaced after spending a week in the world of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll and the homeless (SDF) of Paris. I am familiar with the the world of rock 'n' roll and can pick up
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most of the references to groups and singers in the 1970's-80's sub culture. I used to be more familiar with the world of sex, but this all seems far away from my quiet existence in rural France. Drugs are a world I have never been in tune with and so reading this novel has taken me further out of my comfort zone than I usually venture, especially as I do not read that much contemporary literature. I have also had to frequently google as the author uses acronyms and verlan. It has been a bit of a roller coaster with some lows, but mostly highs.

Virginie Despentes is a French writer, novelist, and filmmaker. She is known for her work exploring gender, sexuality and people who live in poverty or other marginalised conditions. In her writing her characters deal with misery and injustice, self violence or violence towards others such as rape or terrorism. The world she depicts is laced with realism, her political stance is uncertain, she is more concerned in providing a social critique. From wiki there is a quote from Despentes talking about her life and work.

"I became a prostitute and walked the streets in low-cut tops and high-heeled shoes owing no one an explanation, and I kept and spent every penny I earned. I hitchhiked, I was raped, I hitchhiked again. I wrote a first novel and published it under my own, clearly female first name, not imagining for a second that when it came out I’d be continually lectured to about all the boundaries that should never be crossed. . . . I wanted to live like a man, so I lived like a man."

In her novel Vernon Subutex has just retired from making a living selling records from his shop, where various people hung out to chat, and probably sell drugs. Vernon was well liked and he had a connection with a rockstar (Alex Bleach) to whom he provided some services. Bleach has been recently found dead after an illness and Vernon has been left three cassettes by Bleach, unfortunately this has come at a time when Vernon has been evicted from his apartment and in his haste to get out from under the bailiffs most of his personal belongings have been left behind. Vernon is homeless and after a couple of nights on the streets he makes contacts with people in his address book, but short stays with them do not work out and Vernon is back on the streets again. There are people interested in the death of Alex Bleach searching for Vernon, thinking that he has information which can be used.

As this is Tome 1 of a three tome series; Despentes spends much of the time introducing the characters. They all have interesting back stories mostly concerned with living on the edges of society and have known Vernon while he was working. There are porn stars still aware of being recognised on the streets, a friend who has been left by his partner because of too many violent assaults, girlfriends who have tried to turn around their life after the drugs and prostitution of their earlier existence, a trans person who is intent on changing to become male, a film maker whose family is falling apart. All these peoples lives have touched on Vernon, but Vernon now finds all his energies and resources are needed just to stay alive in the hostile environment of the streets of Paris. The death of Alex Bleach is a connecting tissue that hovers in the background and it is only towards the very end of this novel that the story starts to move along.

Despentes is adapt at letting her characters tell their stories, mostly in the third person, but the author changes her writing style to reflect their world.
This is edgy writing, with the author taking the reader in a 'no holds barred' explanation of the lives of her characters. Not so much their own struggles with their sexuality, but the struggles they have with a society that does not approve of their chosen/forced life styles, but is willing to pay with money or violence for their services. Towards the end of the novel Vernon has become one of the faceless people who live on the streets. One of his former acquaintances hurrying to catch the metro sees a cat sprawled out on the lap of a young homeless person and he remarks:

"C'est plus facile de droguer son chat que d'apprendre à jouer de la guitar."

The novel was published in 2015 and has won several prizes. There is an English translation and it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International prize 2018. I borrowed this from my library and noticed that tomes 2 and 3 are still on the shelves. Once I have started something I usually finish and so I can see my reading schedule being interrupted for a time. This was a 4 star read.
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LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
Vernon Subutex is down on his luck. He’s lost the record store that he owned and ran for 20 years near the Bastille in Paris. He’s spent the last couple of years picking up bits of work as a music journalist here and there and selling off his record collection piecemeal on Ebay. And for the
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past year his old chum Alex Bleach, the only one of his friends to have made it in the music biz, has been paying his back rent. But now Alex is dead, an overdose. And as sad as that is, it’s the fallout that is on Vernon’s mind. No one is going to pay his rent on which he is some months in arrears. And when the bailiffs come knocking to evict him, he has only ten minutes to grab what he can and stuff it in a bag. For some reason, one of the things he takes with him is a set of three tapes that Alex made one night in Vernon’s apartment, a drug-fueled rant Vernon assumes but one that might now be worth something. But first Vernon is going have to deal with this homelessness thing.

Apologies if the above sounds like a lot of telling. But that is the mode of presentation of this lengthy first volume in what is to be a trilogy of the life and decline of Vernon Subutex. It’s just a lot of telling and very little showing. And periodically there are new characters introduced who do some further ranty telling for a few pages. They are mostly far-right exhortations against one group or another, or against women or certain types of women. Or they are far-left exhortations which, in the curious world we live in these days, sound incredibly similar.

I’m not sure why the original French text of this novel became acclaimed in France. Perhaps the people reading it are the same people who are blithely ignorant of what occurs on the Internet on a daily basis, or are surprised to learn that there are angry people in France who have difficulty articulating their views but not their anger. And, shock, it turns out that there are homeless people in the capital of culture as well! So perhaps this book is being treated as reportage. If so, I’m glad it is opening people’s eyes.

But otherwise it is rather dull. And so, not recommended.
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LibraryThing member oldblack
This book has received very good reviews, including a warm one from the usually sensible Kate Evans. It was also short listed for the Man Booker International. Why? WHY!!?? I read 200 pages, hoping that the good part would arrive in the next chapter. It didn't. It's all uniformly bad. Maybe the
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final 100 pages makes it a worthwhile read in the end....I'll never know.
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LibraryThing member Ken-Me-Old-Mate
Vernon Subutex Vols 1 & 2 by Virginie Despentes

If you know nothing Virginie Despentes it is because of the celebrity focussed US-centric shallow culture we live in and is not due to any lack of ability on her part.

These books are translated from the French with enough essence left in that you can
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still smell the coffee and sewers of Paris.

This story revolves around a group of people who were once young, beautiful, hip and riding the wave of their times. Now, however, they find themselves middle aged and in various stages of coming to terms (or not) with no longer being those same young things they once were. Some have had an easy ride and some have not. Nearly all of them have followed paths diverging from what they were when they were young. None if them planned on that being the case.

What brings them together is Vernon Subutex.

Once a record store owner and a very cool dude he is now living from hand to mouth barely making ends meet. One of his long time friends, an ageing rock star visits him and they do a mammoth session of drinks and drugs. Vernon passes out and while unconscious his friend records a long confession about his life using Vernon’s video gear. Within days the ageing rock star is dead and the nation mourns and everyone remembers when they were young.

Also within days Vernon’s landlord has decided he can make more money without his existing tenants and Vernon finds himself evicted from his apartment, he leaves with nothing more than a backpack and the tapes. He leaves the tapes with a friend and without any kind of support he sinks lower and lower into seen/not seen world of homelessness .

Meanwhile, the rumour of the existence of the confession tapes causes things to happen. The ageing rock star knew some secrets that others thought it would be better left unsaid.

The makings of a whodunnit/chase scenario? You’d think so but it doesn’t pan out like that. While Vernon sinks lower and lower in the social strata he becomes sought after by those who were once his friends. Yes, it is about the tapes and what may or may not be on them but it’s more than that too.

That’s enough plot to give you the framework that all this hangs on but that is all it is, a framework.

The real story is multifaceted and many layered. It details Vernon’s descent into homelessness and abject poverty in such realistic detail that you realise that without too many changes it could happen to you in the not too distant future. But this is not a story of social inequality. It is about transformation.

Over the two books that I read, every character in this story is on some kind of journey towards openness, forgiveness, understanding, revenge, death and more. All these separate stories meld in the search for Vernon Subutex and yes, even the French think it’s a weird name.

Vernon’s previous life as a record store owner gives a musical underscoring to this whole story and others’ individual stories too, like the neo-nazi losing his inhibition and dancing with the pornstar of his dreams after having confessed to nearly killing one of the main characters of the books. Sounds highly unlikely but actually sits well in the framework of this mini saga.

The main characters have enough depth to be believable even though not always likeable. There is a lovely flow to this story and the soundtrack may strike a chord.

Virginie Despentes captures so much in this story, the way that no-one is ever prepared for middle age, the way that we become people we do not recognise in both good and bad ways, the sheer harsh and unforgiving nature of ageing and how we always see ourselves as young and how these conflicting things can produce unforeseen results.

It appears that Vol 3 is not available on the kindle and I could not find it in other channels either which is a real shame as I’d like to know how the whole story ends. Vol 2 ends with the main characters doing something completely different and Vernon transforming into something wholly bigger.
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LibraryThing member bostonbibliophile
i really enjoyed the heck out of this.


Original language



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