As Clean as Rage

Vernon Subutex 1

by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Frank Wynne
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 340 pp., $16.00 (paper)
Virginie Despentes
JF Paga
Virginie Despentes, 2014

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…

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