Paris at night in 1994, shaky footage on fast-forward. The camera rushes up the cobblestone side streets onto the wide boulevard of the Champs-Élysées. It turns to enter a Virgin Megastore, clatters down the stairs toward the literature section, skims over the art books and shoppers. The lens steadies as it settles on a young woman in a bright red employee vest. The video slows. She stands alone in front of the paperback display, hair hanging over her face, arms tightly crossed, shoulders hunched. The man behind the camera, Thierry Ardisson, approaches, and the woman rocks back on her heels, nods a greeting. Ardisson is the host of Paris Dernière, a tour of the city’s nightlife, sex clubs, and brothels. This episode is the first time France will meet Virginie Despentes, the queer punk wild child who will go on to become one of the country’s best-known writers and change the landscape of French feminism.
But for now, she is twenty-six years old, working as a clerk at the Virgin Megastore, which also happens to sell her first novel, Baise-Moi. Ardisson grabs a copy from a stack on the table behind her. We see only his hands as he flips it open. Later published in English as Rape Me, the title more closely translates to “fuck me” (but more vulgar, as in French the meaning can only be literal). It’s a title that grabs you by the neck as you’re walking by.
The book opens on Nadine, a sex worker, watching hardcore porn in her living room (“urine gushes out like a show of holiday fireworks”). She is watching in part to critique it artistically and in part to annoy her uptight roommate, whom she will, a few pages later, unceremoniously strangle to death. The early chapters alternate between Nadine and Manu, a nihilist with a thirst for “come, beer, [and] whiskey.” Manu’s best friend has just been murdered, but she refuses to show emotion. Instead, she goes out to a bar, bums drinks, and finds herself in a park with an acquaintance named Karla. There, the two women are violently raped by three strangers passing by in their car. Karla fights back and the men bash her head against the ground. Manu lies perfectly still.
When the men return to their car, Karla, in disgust, asks Manu, “How could you give in like that?” Unruffled, Manu explains her passivity. “It’s like a car that you park in the projects,” she says of her body, “you don’t leave anything valuable in it ’cause you can’t keep it from being broken into. I can’t keep assholes from getting into my pussy, so I don’t leave anything valuable in there.” The statement shocks, yet it rings of hard-earned truth. Karla turns her rage toward the assaulters and runs after their departing car. They run her over.
I read the book with a pencil in hand, and my copy is littered with notations such as “!!!! Karla DIES!?”: the disorienting thrill of realizing how many narrative rules could be broken. Manu steals an ex-boyfriend’s gun, murders the man who killed her best friend, and kidnaps a stranger she encounters at an abandoned train station to drive her getaway car. The stranger turns out to be Nadine, who recognizes Manu from the pornography she’s been in; the two find an instant affinity. They are both on the run from a system that never protected them and that will now attempt to bring them to justice. The pair embark on a road trip as hedonistic as it is nihilistic. This is only the end of the first act.
Baise-Moi is a torrent of a text, trapped in the velocity of an infernal present. Nadine and Manu go on a killing spree—men, women, eventually a child—not for revenge, but for the rapture of the performance, the way it feels to hold the gun. They drink, they do drugs, they masturbate, they smear themselves with menstrual blood because it smells good, they fuck men for their own pleasure, and they fantasize about murder while they orgasm. Their pictures appear in the papers, they marvel that they haven’t yet been caught, they revel in their own ugliness, they imagine the headlines that will announce their dramatic, inevitable suicides. When someone suggests a murder that might bring them money, Nadine refuses: “We’re into bad taste for the sake of it.” The novel is an ode to the outcast, to deviance as the purest state of grace.
Ardisson, the voice offscreen at the Virgin Megastore, riffs on the vulgarity of the book. He asks Despentes if she likes to fuck, if she has a boyfriend, if she (like her characters) has had foursomes, if she is a lesbian, and, when she says no to all these questions, how she manages to live without sex. Despentes doesn’t play along, doesn’t go coy or smile. The bags beneath her large blue eyes are already deep, and her telegenic charm, the charm that would captivate an entire country, is already there. It’s a mix of ferocity and fragility—the vulnerability of someone who doesn’t know how to dissimulate paired with the strength of someone who doesn’t care what you think about her. “I could never separate her innocence from her rage,” one of her old friends has said. “Transgression,” Nadine thinks, as she admires a model in a porn mag. “She does what isn’t supposed to be done, with such obvious pleasure. What’s most disturbing is her quiet confidence in exposing herself.”
Despentes wrote Baise-Moi when she was twenty-three years old. She was an indomitable child, chafing at authority, trying to lead her schoolmates in hunger strikes, skipping curfew to go to punk concerts. Her parents, leftist postal workers who taught her “L’Internationale” as a toddler, put her in a mental institution to contain her. She left home at seventeen and hitchhiked across France, taking odd jobs to make ends meet. In an early 1990s fanzine, Despentes came across a story by the experimental feminist writer Kathy Acker, and the accompanying photo—short hair, red lips, hard stare—stopped her cold. “I want you to fuck me, I want you to fuck me twice,” Acker wrote. As Despentes later put it, on the blog she kept in the early 2000s, “It was in that precise moment that I understood what I wanted to do with my life. To write that kind of thing, while being a woman, while wearing lipstick that could be seen from across the room.” It was a revelation: not only could Despentes read Bukowski, whose books she devoured with near-religious fervor, she could write like Bukowski. She could write as a woman, about women, with untrammeled id.
She wrote Baise-Moi in one frenetic summer month. Nine publishers rejected it. Not even the bookstores that let you sell your own pamphlets on commission would carry it.
But a year later, after Despentes had given up on a literary career, lost the manuscript, and returned to life as the ringleader of a squat, a friend gave a copy to Florent Massot, a young editor who self-published magazines about street culture. Massot took a chance. He formed a publishing house and printed a thousand copies, then two thousand, delivering them to alternative coffee shops and rock cafés from the basket of his bicycle. Baise-Moi began to make its way through the punk scene, where it thrilled without shocking; the book, like Despentes herself, was of this spiky world.
And then Despentes met Patrick Eudeline, a rock critic and former punk musician who was one of her idols. They spent three days in a hotel room, “telling each other their wildest stories,” he later said. Despentes gave Eudeline her book, and he brought it to Thierry Ardisson’s attention. After Despentes’s appearance on Paris Dernière, sales jumped to 40,000.
Baise-Moi would go on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. The French press hurled themselves at Despentes, whose rough voice and tattoos set her apart from the overeducated authoresses who usually appeared on television. They tried to throw a veil of modesty over her past, but she spoke about her history as an occasional sex worker in peep shows and massage parlors with as much pleasure as she’d taken in doing the work itself. They tried to cast her as the girl who’d been saved from sleaze by the grace of her talents, but she refused the role, insisting that the best years of her life were the ones before she’d been “discovered”—the zines and protests and concerts she’d organized, the authenticity and excitement that could never match the bourgeois sterility she was now thrust into. When a journalist asked her if turning her first trick had felt like violating the ultimate taboo, she responded, “Much less so than my first television appearance.”
For her next books, Despentes was approached by the more established Éditions Grasset. She injected the genre of pulp fiction with gritty feminism, creating a world of chain-smoking lesbian private eyes and slick despicable male producers, where people died violently, often at the hands of women. Despentes’s protagonists were female misfits, constitutionally unable to perform femininity. She married camp and noir with a sharp-as-nails satire of gender politics. She had an uncanny ear for how people spoke, and those voices, rich with broken rules, transcended the dialogue and filled the narration. “I’m not interested in the beautiful sentence,” Despentes told a reporter. “That’s fine for other people, but I don’t give a fuck about it.” She claimed to have written her early books in coke-fueled binges, up against deadlines, and they read that way.
Underlying all of Despentes’s work is the concept of rape. It is the omnipresent possibility through which everything is refracted. There’s a war going on, her books insist, not so much between men and women as on men and women, waged through the constructs of gender. Masculinity, for Despentes, is the artillery that tears our bodies apart, while femininity is the drug of mass indoctrination. What she had learned from punk rock, she once said, was to look clearly at the world and declare it rotten.
In the 1990s French literature was breaking open, and the literary scene was making room for postcolonial writers, provocateurs (notably Michel Houellebecq), and women (notably women who, writing frankly about sex and desire, were also deemed provocateurs). Twenty-seven-year-old Marie Darrieussecq’s Pig Tales: A Novel of Lust and Transformation (1996), a fable narrated by a woman who slowly transforms into a pig, was, in the author’s words, about “the metamorphosis of a female object into a conscious woman.” Twenty-six-year-old Lorette Nobécourt’s La démangeaison (1994, never translated into English), a short, deranged tale narrated by a woman whose chronic itch consumes her entire body and then her thoughts, was impossible to read without scratching your own skin. Christine Angot’s L’Inceste (1999) scandalized the French public with its autofictional account of her sexual relationship with her father. Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M. (2001) detailed her numerous exploits; Edmund White called it “the most explicit book about sex ever written by a woman.” But Despentes’s work had one thing these other books did not: an uninhibited rage, directed not solely at men, but at every part of the systems that gave them power—including any woman who played along by wrapping herself in the straitjacket of femininity.
In 2000 Despentes codirected the film adaptation of Baise-Moi, along with Coralie Trinh Thi, an adult film star known as “the intellectual of the X-rated.” It was shot in six weeks on a very low budget and starred two other porn actors, Karen Lancaume and Raffaëla Anderson. France doesn’t share America’s genre distinction between hardcore and softcore pornography, but rather distinguishes between simulated and unsimulated sex, and the film left little doubt that the sex was unsimulated. The three-minute-long rape scene, filmed in an abandoned warehouse, is excruciating. Karla’s screams echo off the walls as the camera cuts between the act of penetration and the blood that streams into her mouth. Manu breathes heavily through her nose, unmoving, while a man spits into his hand to lubricate himself. “I feel like I’m fucking a zombie,” he says, hitting her. “Move your ass a bit.” After the men depart, the camera lingers on Manu on her hands and knees, small in the vast empty space. She trembles with a fury that could tear the world apart.
The film opened in sixty theaters in France that June, and managed to unite fascists and the far left, Christians and feminists in protest. The feminists held that the film was dangerous for suggesting violence as an answer to rape. (Why shouldn’t it be? Despentes wanted to know.) Two days after it opened, the French Council of State revoked the film’s rating, effectively banning the movie by relegating it to the handful of pornographic theaters still in operation in France. After further uproar, the minister of culture created a new rating that allowed the film to be distributed but not shown to minors. By the time the film reopened in France a year later, the hypocrisy of the scandal—a film too sexual for the libertine French?—had led to its being exported worldwide. It went on to gross nearly $1 million in France and abroad.
And yet, despite this international success, Despentes still remains relatively unknown in the United States. A translation of Baise-Moi by Bruce Benderson was published by Grove in 2002; over ten years later, Feminist Press put out several of her pulp novels—Apocalypse Baby (translated by Siân Reynolds, 2015), Bye Bye Blondie (translated by Reynolds, 2016), and Pretty Things (translated by Emma Ramadan, 2018)—each with covers by the writer and artist Molly Crabapple, a fitting American punk counterpart to Despentes. Parul Sehgal expertly condensed these books’ ethos in her New York Times review in 2016, but Despentes’s popularity in the US has never transcended cult circles.
After the film’s release, Despentes quit alcohol and drugs, curious to see what kind of writer she would become if she allowed herself to survive into old age. At thirty-five, she, in her phrasing, “became a lesbian.” Her long, intense relationship with the Spanish writer-philosopher Paul B. Preciado (then known as Beatriz) captivated their readers. Preciado detailed both the beginning of his transition and the beginning of their affair in the book Testo Junkie (2013), in which he described Despentes as “the aristocratic brain of a futurist she-wolf lodged in the body of a hooker, the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner incarnated in a street dog.” In a series of newspaper essays recently published as An Apartment on Uranus (MIT Press), he defines for himself what might be called a nonbinary gender—though Preciado, resistant to labels, defines it in a hundred other ways—and details the dissolution of their relationship (yet Despentes’s tender foreword to that book proves the two have remained close).
Preciado writes with sublimely unfettered arrogance, embracing the impenetrable density of queer theory (with sentences full of his own portmanteaus like “necropolitical” and “techno-patriarchal”). Stylistically, his and Despentes’s work could not be more opposed, but the idea of living constantly in transition, of in-between-ness as the destination, is intellectually invigorating to Despentes. Still, she cannot help but observe Preciado’s changing body through the stark binaries that so dominate her own work. “When we’re together on the street what bothers me most is not that men speak to you better, it’s that women don’t behave in the same way anymore,” she writes. “[Straight] women think you’re their type and they let you know as all women do, by showering you with little gratuitous attentions.” Even as she admires Preciado for rejecting gender, she sees the world around him as cleaved into two stereotypes—back-slapping men and simpering women.
Despentes is at times asked by the French press if becoming a lesbian somehow helped make her a better writer (she is rarely asked if becoming sober did). She responds, emphatically, yes: in her heterosexual life, her success hindered her capacity for seduction. Men were threatened by her. As a lesbian, she says, the more successful she became, the more attractive she became. The same with aging—being a lesbian was a liberation. All women, she says, would be lesbians, if only the stigma were removed.
Despentes’s most recent work, The Vernon Subutex trilogy, which began appearing in 2015, catapulted her into the high echelons of the literary establishment. (Subutex is the brand name of a drug prescribed to treat opioid addiction, and one just as easily abused; “Vernon” might be a reference to the pen name that Boris Vian took for his Vernon Sullivan novels, though Despentes says “Vernon Subutex” was just an “idiot punk pseudonym” she once used for a fake Facebook profile.) The first volume sold over 700,000 copies, and in 2016 she was named one of the ten members of the Académie Goncourt (although earlier this year she stepped down from the prestigious jury in order to have more time to write).
The series is a departure from her pulp writing, a sprawling Parisian epic à la Zola, focused as much on class as on sex. Vernon is an aging Gen X-er whose small Parisian record store, once the center of an entire social circle, is shuttered by the changing music industry. He isolates himself, can’t find work, and eventually stops receiving his unemployment checks. For a time, his rent is paid by Alex Bleach, a young musician whose skyrocketing fame left others jealous; when Bleach dies of an overdose, Vernon is evicted. The book follows his peripatetic journey across the couches of old friends, from bitterly unmarried women to bitterly married men, with each narrating a chapter (a format that more closely resembles the TV show High Maintenance than it does a novel).
Vernon eventually finds himself living on the street, where he is adopted by homeless people with more kindness than anyone else has shown him. Vernon delivers the first volume’s closing monologue as he emerges from a disorienting fugue state to find himself on a bench on a hill overlooking the city. The voices of Paris begin to speak through him. (“I am the undocumented immigrant,” “I am the teenager indivisible from his wheelchair,” “I am a young virtuoso violinist,” “I am a hobo perched on a hill.”) This is a trick that Despentes uses often in her work: she writes from the perspective of the marginalized, then makes you see that the margins overwhelm the center.
When I lived in Paris, my then girlfriend brought me to that exact hill, that exact bench. This was part of the book’s charm, that the Paris contained within was recognizable: the disaffected urban landscape torn apart by economic instability and the increasing alienation of the Internet.
Despentes has been quick to say that these books, unlike her earlier work, are finally being taken seriously solely because the protagonist is a man. Today reporters ask her whether she has become embourgeoisée, and she says of course she has: she has slowed down and softened, she eats at the restaurants she once walked past in disdain. One French academic told me, with a sigh of genuine regret, “Despentes could write a great book, but I don’t think she ever will.” I agree, in part. Despentes’s earlier pulp novels are revolutionary and furious, but they never aspired to greatness—they are intentionally trash (and perhaps unintentionally heavy-handed). Vernon Subutex 1 is grander in its ambition, but it sprawls, the voices of the characters blend together, and it’s occasionally sloppy (in one chapter, a film producer complains that the release of the 2011 movies The Artist and Les Intouchables “has royally screwed up his year”; in the next chapter, we are told that it’s 2014). The misogyny and xenophobia of her characters are startlingly aggressive; the book is filled with a bitterness that doesn’t taste quite as clean as rage.
There is hope that Vernon Subutex will mark Despentes’s breakthrough in America—FSG has taken on the project of publishing it in English, with the first volume released last November and the second scheduled for July. While the first book hews toward realism, the subsequent two grow stranger. Vernon’s disparate band of friends converge in the park where he lives, and, with him as their unwilling guru, they form a ragtag utopian community. He begins to DJ raves where, without drugs, the pure power of music evokes transcendent visions; the narrative telescopes centuries into the future where, the world destroyed, we learn that the followers of Subutex have created a cult-like religion.
Initially set against the backdrop of a Paris reeling from the 2015 and 2016 terrorist attacks (specifically, the massacre at a concert venue), later books escalate steadily into the kind of bloodbath that marked Despentes’s earlier novels. The second volume is messier than the first—monologues drag and the tension dissipates—but the third, where things really start to get weird, is my favorite of the three. Taken as a whole, the trilogy is a rather extraordinary act of creation and destruction, a realistic Paris evoked, transformed, and torn apart.
But Despentes, with her ear for spoken French, is almost impossible to translate, and Frank Wynne’s translation is no better than those of her other books. Women are described as “frumps,” “old codgers,” “cantankerous old cows,” “wrinkly old bats”—insults that, if said aloud, would be more notable for their anachronism than their venom. Dialogue as fluid as air in French becomes, “No way, you’re shitting me!” In one place, a mistranslation of “que ce soit elle qui se charge de” as “she was the one chosen to” (instead of “she took on the task”) makes a passage difficult to understand. In reference to writing online, the sentence “She doesn’t do the thing of adolescent bad grammar—putting k’s everywhere”—is translated as “She refuses to use leetspeak—replacing ‘E’ with ‘3.’” In another chapter, Vernon observes of a character with whom he has a single conversation in the park, “She uses young people’s words…. She says ‘swear down,’ she says ‘on fleek,’ she says ‘bae.’” (The words given in French translate more closely to “for sure,” “that sucks,” and “that’s awesome.”) In translating the rich range of Despentes’s argot (which includes wonderfully untranslatable French verlan, a form of slang where words are inverted, such as “keupon” for “punk”), Wynne, who is Irish, pulls from hacker culture, African-American vernacular, and slang from the north of England in an unfortunate mixture that undercuts a book whose greatest pleasure is the precision of its references.
Despentes, in my opinion, has written one great book, a book that underlies the rest of her oeuvre, and though it’s the most straightforward to translate linguistically, it may also be the most complicated to translate culturally. King Kong Theory (Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle, 2006; Feminist Press, 2010), Despentes’s intense and personal feminist manifesto, is often referred to as a “difficult” text by American feminists, though the exact difficulty is rarely named. (It is currently out of print in the US, though it will soon be reissued by Fitzcarraldo in the UK, in a new translation by Wynne.) I first heard of it in a hallway at a literary party in New York City, in the midst of the Me Too upheaval, when a woman writer said to me, confidentially, “Well I felt one way about my rape, but then I read King Kong Theory, and that changed everything.”
In King Kong Theory, Despentes tells, for the first time, the story of her own rape. She describes it as “a founding event. Of who I am as a writer, and as a woman who is no longer quite a woman. It is both that which disfigures me, and that which makes me.” Despentes was seventeen years old, hitchhiking with a friend. She had a knife in her pocket, a switchblade she was adept at using. She prayed her attackers would not find it. “I am not furious with myself for not having dared to kill one of them,” she writes:
I am furious with a society that has educated me without ever teaching me to injure a man if he pulls my thighs apart against my will, when that same society has taught me that this is a crime from which I will never recover. And I am most of all utterly enraged that, faced with three men and a gun, trapped in a forest from which we could have never escaped on foot, I still feel guilty today for not having had the courage to defend us with a little knife.
Here, Despentes writes not as other people speak but as she speaks, with unbridled brutality. “I am writing as an ugly one for the ugly ones: the old hags, the dykes, the frigid, the unfucked, the unfuckables, the neurotics, the psychos, for all those girls who don’t get a second look in the universal market of the consumable chick,” the prologue begins. There is an almost sacrificial generosity to her voice, a willingness to say it for you that makes any woman want to copy out the phrases as her own.
King Kong Theory is peppered with references to Anglophone feminists—Virginia Woolf, Angela Davis, Gail Pheterson, and Annie Sprinkle provide the epigraphs for short essays on the sexual revolution, rape, prostitution, and pornography—but the writer who had the most profound influence on Despentes is Camille Paglia. For years, Despentes never named her rape as such—she had been taught that rape ruined a woman, and she refused to be ruined. Then she came across an essay in which Paglia, in Despentes’s paraphrase, described rape as
an inevitable danger, a danger that women need to take into account and run the risk of encountering, if they want to leave their homes and move around freely. If it happens to you then pick yourself up, dust yourself down, and move on.
For Despentes, this was a liberation. “For the first time,” she wrote, “someone was valuing the ability to get over it, instead of lying down obligingly in the anthology of trauma.” Rape was a risk Despentes had chosen to take in exchange for her freedom, and that made it into something over which she had agency. Despentes never absolves men, or minimizes her trauma—King Kong Theory is blistering with anger, and so precisely phrased that it feels an injustice to summarize it. But it acknowledges the prevalence of rape, and the ways in which we fail to equip young women to respond in any way other than as victims. We deny them fury, or the simple defiance of unblemished survival.
While touring with the film version of Baise-Moi, Despentes had conversations with American and Canadian feminists that, she writes, left her feeling like feminism in France was a decade behind. As someone who is half French, I can attest to this being half true. Many things in France feel “behind” at first blush—businesses don’t have websites, reservations are made by phone, young people still use Facebook, the list goes on. But when it comes to social issues, I’ve found it misleading to measure progressiveness as linearly as iPhone upgrades. French feminism differs fundamentally from American feminism in where it places responsibility. As #MeToo bloomed on American Twitter, French women embraced the hashtag #BalanceTonPorc, whose wording was tellingly different. “Get rid of/denounce your swine” was a phrase that emphasized women’s agency. While the American part of me believes that “Me Too” was more powerful in making visible how many women have experienced sexual harassment, the French part of me understands the desire to frame the conversation in the language of action instead of the language of suffering.
When I lived in Paris, I often spent my days writing in the café on my corner. Because a young woman alone in any part of this city is presumed by men to want company, I wore foam earplugs in my ears: they served the double purpose of blocking out sound and, when I slowly removed them, of thoroughly disgusting the men who approached me. One afternoon, a tall, broad-shouldered older white man spoke to me, and I gestured at my ears and went back to writing. When I walked home from the café, going past the numerical keypad at my front door, through the second locked door, and then up my staircase into the small apartment where I lived alone, I only vaguely registered someone behind me. Seconds after I had shut my front door, someone pounded on it. “Who is it?” I yelled. “It’s the young man from the café,” he responded, in a strange falsetto. Had a neighbor not passed between us on the stairs, I would not have had time to close the door. When I called my French mother, shaken, she said, “You must have done something to give him the impression you were available.” When I called my French grandmother, she said, “Don’t flatter yourself, he was after your laptop.” When I called a French friend and asked him to walk me to the restaurant where we were set to meet, he stepped into my apartment and exclaimed, “But you look so nice today! I would have followed you home too!”
I’m not saying that these were the responses I wanted, or that a world in which women must look behind themselves while walking home is a just one. But I am saying that, as I write the end of this essay, back in Paris with my family, I am sitting in that same café, at the same table where I’d been sitting that day, because it is one of my favorite places to write. And that doesn’t, in any way, diminish my rage.