Seen from a certain perspective, Constance Debré’s recent trilogy of novels—Playboy, Love Me Tender, and Nom (Name)—looks ready-made to appeal to audiences hungry for autobiographical tales of female self-emancipation. The books are based on events from Debré’s own life, the facts of which are as follows: born into an illustrious French family, Debré grew up to be a successful criminal defense attorney with a husband and a child, maintaining a façade of bourgeois contentment until, seemingly out of the blue, she announced to her husband that she wanted to be a writer and not a lawyer, a lesbian and not a man’s wife, and not just a lesbian but a womanizer instead of a happily coupled homosexual. She lost custody of her young son; in Love Me Tender, the narrator’s ex convinces a family court judge that the books in her library, with their queer themes, are evidence of perversion.

Debré, however, is not interested in empowerment, or even really in pleasure. Her narrator throws herself into sex not because sex is a good time but because, like the laps she swims daily at a public pool, it is a kind of discipline, hard and unforgiving: “Like a convict counting the days, I check them off,” she says of her conquests. “I make lists, I draw up a tally on the wall.” In Love Me Tender, she describes assigning her lovers numbers: “Number one has hairs that go all the way down her thighs”; “Number two is slim…. She has two daughters and a suede jacket, she told me she’s straight as well.” As part of her broad renunciation of comfort, she rents a tiny studio apartment with “a mattress on wooden slats” and “a shower in the corner.” Sex makes the bare room emptier:

They text me when they arrive and I go down to open the door, I haven’t given them the code to get into the building, we fuck in the single bed…. I take what they have to give, I watch what happens when I touch them. I call them both honey. It would be nice to be able to pay them to avoid any misunderstandings.

Debré itemizes actions (“she strokes my skin,” “I run my hand over her slim legs,” “she makes tea, we fuck again, we read books”) but rarely discusses feelings (“that would be gay,” the narrator of Playboy wryly explains). Her erotic sensibility is minimalist and at times even desolate, which makes moments of physical and psychological intensity especially troublesome. “How do you deal with fear and tenderness and hatred and boredom?” she asks her lover and her reader in one breath. “Show me.”

The logic of a certain kind of feminist literary fiction is based on the assumption that women want to find themselves. Patriarchy, marriage, motherhood, and other social forces erect daunting barriers between the person and what might mushily be called her “true” character and destiny. In order to find this character and this destiny, the female protagonist must leave an oppressive situation for a liberated alternative. She might trade a cramped or patronizing relationship for a generous one, a tedious desk job for the life of a world traveler. Along the way, she might learn a few lessons about self-respect and self-care, about when and when not to compromise on her ideals and her desires.

This particular narrative model, as fundamental to Jane Eyre as it is to Eat, Pray, Love, is entirely irrelevant to Debré’s vision of life after heterosexuality, except as a kind of negative example. While her trilogy functions partly as a bildungsroman, or novel of personal development, it explodes the assumption that “development” means growth, means having or being more. “To be free,” she writes in Nom, “is emptiness, it is nothing but having an understanding with emptiness.” (“Être libre c’est le vide, ce n’est que ce rapport avec le vide.”) In other words, Debré is not out to discover her self but to annihilate it.

Nom, published in France in 2022, is the only book in Debré’s series that has yet to appear in English, though a translation, by Lauren Elkin, is forthcoming from Semiotext(e). The other two, Playboy (2018) and Love Me Tender (2020), which also appeared in English under the Semiotext(e) imprint, have been rendered by Holly James into an English that, like Debré’s French, is at once cavernous and concise. In an interview, Debré described modeling her own prose style on French law, which, she said, is designed to be maximally clear and effective. This is a political choice as much as an aesthetic one:

The aim is not to prove that you have read Spinoza or that you go to museums or art shows. That’s one of the reasons my sentences are very short. My vocabulary is very simple. I decided to write like that because I wanted my book to be very direct…. It has to be immediately understood and more, felt by anyone. It has to work, and to work on everybody possibly, and not only on a few super educated people.

Shorn of emotional detail, Debré’s sentences are easy to read and difficult to bear. If her novels are anchored by a rapport with emptiness as both the cost and conduit of freedom, her prose matches that attitude in its tone, which has the mournful reverberation of a stone dropped down a well. “We are all the possible identities because identity is nothing, at the level which interests me,” she said in the same interview. Small surprise that Nom—a word that, in French, typically refers to one’s last or family name—is a homophone for non, the name a prompt for its negation.


Playboy serves as a prequel to Love Me Tender, which orbits around the custody battle between its protagonist and her ex-husband. In between supervised visits with her son, Paul, the narrator churns through a nameless clutch of women—“my work consists of waiting, swimming, and fucking girls”—while her ex-husband stalks her social media profiles, looking for further proof of her depravity. The passages in Love Me Tender that deal with Paul and the rupture between mother and son are excruciating, all the more so because of their refusal to use the language of emotional transparency or testimonial.

When Debré writes, for example, “I avoid parks, schools, bakeries at half past four in the afternoon, I take detours, I hide away on weekends…. I run from children as though they were cluster bombs, as though they could blow up in my face at any moment,” she is letting her verbs (“avoid,” “hide,” “run”) and her violent metaphor ferry the burden of her feelings. At no point does her narrator say anything like “I felt sad” or “it broke my heart” or “the situation was terrible,” her end run around adjectival specificity amounting to a policy of detachment set in place to protect Paul more than the narrator herself.

We often associate motherhood with boundless and unrestrained displays of affection, but for Debré it is more properly defined as a practice of insulating a child from one’s own psychological dramas. Her narrator seems, above all, not to want to bother her son. In Playboy, Debré tests the limits of this sort of dispassion when it comes to love, which her narrator appears to experience as a series of irrational obligations to someone less principled than she is. The respectful, unobtrusive parent becomes the lover awash in contempt for her partner’s moods, which she regards from a distance too impartial to be called cruel.

Playboy is about two affairs, neither of which could really be called a love story. The first concerns the narrator’s relationship with a narcissistic, not terribly intelligent, but supremely manipulative married woman named Agnès, who is ten years older than the narrator; the second, a much hotter but short-lived fling with a woman in her twenties named Albertine, or Albert for short. Both happen as the narrator’s marriage is dissolving and the health of her elderly father, a former heroin addict, is beginning to deteriorate.

Albertine, as some readers will remember, is the name of Marcel’s (or the narrator’s) mistress in Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. She is, Marcel suspects, of a “genre gomorrhéen,” which is to say a lesbian. Despite Marcel’s attempts to get to the bottom of Albertine’s personality, she remains an intractable outline, an “être de fuite,” or fugitive being, who moves through the world as if propelled merely by the laws of physics and not by any interior psychic motivation. But where Albertine is fascinating in her strange vacuity, the Albert of Playboy is at once more recognizable as a person with concrete hopes and desires and far less intriguing as a literary character.

Albert’s tastes are generic, even preprogrammed. Ambiently unemployed, she calls herself “not homo, but sexual,” recites “moon incantations,” and expresses on-trend desires “to host orgies, chic ones,” and dabble in BDSM. “I wouldn’t expect anything less, honey bun,” the narrator sighs. Still, she’s young, and we sense that she’ll turn out all right in the end. That’s precisely what makes her boring, a blank slate that satisfies the narrator’s own desire to experience not just herself but also sexual relationships as a retreat from the affliction of personality.

Agnès, by contrast, is fascinating in her dullness, a monster of the prosaic who generates a startling amount of narrative frisson. Debré introduces her as a collection of insipid habits absorbed lazily, as if through osmosis, and as a walking affront to the narrator’s elite sensibilities. “The petty bourgeoisie,” the narrator admits, is “something I wasn’t familiar with.” Here is Agnès:


She has a career, an apartment in the fourteenth arrondissement, and a house in the countryside. She owns her place. She buys things on eBay. She takes the bus. She goes to the movies on Saturdays, brunch on Sundays, she likes Emmanuel Carrère, she never wears sneakers. Except in the summer, canvas ones. She drinks wine in the evening, either a white or a light red, local wines. Her cousins from the countryside send her recipes. She reads Elle and Le Monde. If there’s a big protest, she’ll go along. She votes left. She’s highly disillusioned with politics but she thinks it’s important to vote. She’s never lived abroad, she doesn’t really speak English. She’s always worked for the same company.

This goes on for another several sentences before the narrator declares, in stark terms, that she has “decided that whatever happened between us would be the most important thing in my life. It didn’t matter who she was.”

In 1979 the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu published his door-stopping study La Distinction, translated into English five years later as Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Based on exhaustive empirical research, Distinction nimbly undoes the assumption that having good taste is a sign of personal virtue and intellectual refinement. Rather, Bourdieu says, our tastes can be easily anticipated by our class position. Wealthy people of a certain level of education like racquetball but disdain rugby, while middle-class kids with Ivy League degrees listen to Taylor Swift, as they say, ironically. Tear-jerking movies about World War II or what the critic Wesley Morris calls “racial reconciliation fantasies” (think Green Book, The Help, or Driving Miss Daisy) are peddled to working-class audiences who might feel gratified when a film they’ve seen is graced with an Oscar.

The political argument of Distinction is profound: social inequality creates conditions whereby the ruling classes define what makes art and culture high or low, barring working-class people from being able to determine for themselves the criteria by which to judge their world and the objects in it. What makes the book great, however, is its hilarious unraveling of the narcissism of small differences that defines bourgeois cultural sensibilities.

Both Agnès and Albert might be easily sorted into the tables Bourdieu includes in Distinction, which compare the cinematic preferences of secondary school teachers with those of industrial and commercial employers (both groups put Singin’ in the Rain in their top ten, but schoolteachers had a higher opinion of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel) and demonstrate that well-educated people with little money prefer Van Gogh but rich people with little education prefer Renoir. Albert has, maybe, at some point, done PR for an art gallery; Agnès “says Oh shoot,” “takes off her shoes before walking in the house,” and “eats her dinner early.” “My classist instincts,” the narrator says, “come out when I’m with her.” Neither woman comes close to the narrator’s drive to own, want, and be nothing, a drive that she recognizes as part aristocratic privilege, part nihilism, a death drive that might be even more fundamental than the class relation.

Besides her canvas sneakers and her taste for local wines, the most vulgar thing about Agnès is her ambivalence toward her own sexuality. For months she and the narrator date and flirt, kissing and fondling each other before Agnès abruptly pulls away. They even go on vacation together: “From her bedroom, right next to mine, she texts me saying Every time I tell myself next time.” This maddening oscillation between passivity and command strikes the narrator as a rhythm peculiar to women in general, or at least to a subcategory of women to which she herself no longer belongs. “So that’s what a woman is,” she writes,

soft skin and stupidity, a narrow soul that can’t compare with the softness of the skin, sloppy caresses, a body that can’t return the reverence it inspires, an animal that knows nothing of love and desire, that knows nothing of beauty either, a bourgeois body, devoid of greatness, slightly dirty.

“I understood,” she continues, “the violence of men.” Invoking her ex-husband, she wonders “if that’s how Laurent had always felt about me.”

Read straight, this might seem like unreconstructed misogyny. But the fictional frame of Playboy scaffolds these lines with both irony and pathos, as the narrator begins, reluctantly, to recognize herself in the object of her ambivalent desire. Much of the power of Debré’s writing lies in its painfully direct handling of the less pleasant emotions that accompany attachment. “Beneath her perfume,” the narrator says of Agnès, “I’ve always liked the faint smell of her sweat. Now I wrinkle my nose in disgust. It turns out she’s just dirty.” It would be easy to call her prose clinical: it is sharply observed, cool, and unbiased in its assessment of human folly. But it would be truer to say that Debré writes with a passion that has been evacuated of sentiment and reduced to motive force, that cuts through the polite dross of social as well as narrative convention to present people as they really are: desperate, selfish, thoughtless, and more or less alone.

This is not uplifting, nor is it meant to be. The consolations of self-discovery, as advertised in the mainstream of women’s fiction, are countered here by blistering remarks on the flimsiness of identity, whether personal or collective. Comparing her lesbianism to both her father’s Jewish ancestry and his drug addiction, the narrator insists that “there’s no substance to any of it.” “We’re all doing really badly,” she continues.

So we’re forced to try things to try and get better. Being Jewish or gay or a junkie, for example. Sometimes it works for a while. Sometimes it doesn’t. Either way you have to do something with the longing, the absence…. You can swap gay for Jew or junkie or whatever you want. Or just unhappy, without giving it a label.

Like Agnès’s perfume, categories of the self—like Bourdieu’s signifiers of good, bad, or middling taste—merely mask the way existence alternates between anguish and tedium. Life seems always to be building toward a redemption, or at least a contentment, that never comes. “It’s just sex,” Debré writes, “just love. Nothing new.”

If Debré’s novels were monotonously cynical or grim they would be far less pleasurable to read. They are brutal, but they are also something more—and that is very, very funny: “The essence of couple life,” she writes early in Playboy, “is being bored shitless. Couple life and life in general…. Neither here nor there. Calm. Like a bomb shelter.” Like Hervé Guibert, one of the writers in her library who attracts her ex-husband’s ire, Debré’s narrator has an impulse toward lacerating wit that comes out in extremis. In one scene from his extraordinary memoir To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, Guibert describes getting lost in a hospital complex while trying to get a blood test. Guibert, who died of AIDS in 1991 at the age of thirty-six, hurtles around empty corridors, catches unwanted sight of an ex-lover, has vial after vial of blood taken, nearly vomits several times, and observes three nurses “piled on top of one another in a broom closet like some sort of circus act.” The interlude is abominable, but in his brazen embrace of his own impotence Guibert achieves a pitch-black humor that feels nothing less than sublime.

“A horse in a slaughterhouse,” writes Guibert, “hanging suspended in midair with its throat cut, keeps galloping in the void.” This is as good a description as any of the run-on sentences Guibert deploys in To the Friend, a record of agonized delirium in which each clause tumbles after the next. The baseline of Debré’s prose is far more clipped. Of her narrator’s ex-husband she writes, “He smokes. That’s his main occupation. The most essential relationship he has with the world.” Yet there are passages in the novel that read like an homage to Guibert, in particular a riotously dire monologue the narrator fantasizes about delivering to her famous family, a platoon of gay aristocrats, Jewish antisemites, drug addicts, misogynists, and racists who consider it “chic” to have “a Black servant”—the housekeeper Ludivine—“for white people.”

“I have something I want to say,” the narrator declares, addressing

my dear, paternal family, sitting there with your sticks up your asses, because even if the aristocrats on Mom’s side were all crazy and practically illiterate, at least my good old aunt was sleeping with [a woman] and nobody gave a fuck because it wasn’t as bad as watching their châteaux go up in flames and their money vanish into thin air, and anyway all they cared about was that drop of Jewish blood floating around in there…. Darling, do you think I have a Jewish nose? And anyway on Dad’s side we have a rabbi in the family which of course is a little embarrassing…. But back to my point, yes, sorry, ting ting ting, knife on the glass, I’ve got some news, I am simply ecstatic to announce, ecstatic as in ecstasy as in the climax of the story, please listen carefully and make sure you’ve swallowed your mouthful, grab a glass of water and keep your medication to hand, Ludivine, fetch the smelling salts! Do I have your attention? Is everyone listening? I eat girls’ cunts out and suck their nipples and I slip my fingers up their cute little asses because Grandpa, Granny, aunts and uncles, Ludivine dearest, I am a dyke.

This passage comes late in the novel, by which point Debré has earned the right to bluster through her otherwise indefatigable exercise of narrative restraint. Here her narrator bursts through the scrim of her own willful obscurity, at once reveling in and tortured by the twin forces of fury and exultation. In the addresses to secondary characters both specific (“Ludivine”) and general (“Darling”), in the rupture of sound effects (“ting ting ting”) and realist detail (“knife on the glass,” “keep your medication to hand”), we catch a glimpse of the more lavish, declamatory novel Debré might have written, and from which the austere fiction of Playboy might have been whittled. We see, in other words, everything that the narrator has given up in order to grasp the life she doesn’t exactly want but nonetheless can’t bear to be without—a life without the solace of clichés emotional, familial, or aesthetic.

As a gay man with HIV in the early years of the AIDS crisis, when national health policies were driven more by homophobia than science, Guibert wrote under conditions of existential peril exponentially aggravated by public and political neglect. The darkly comic moments of his books implicate all of us in their unforgiving representations of both institutional and interpersonal failure—of how people with health, money, or any other kind of safety net turn, with instinctive cruelty, away from suffering, as if to avoid its contagion. Debré writes from within a very different historical moment and from a very different position, but she is a social critic of equal severity, not least because her first and last object of opprobrium tends to be herself. Her narrator is, after all, “on the street but ontologically loaded,” able to choose poverty as a sort of ethics rather than being tossed into it by birth or circumstance. “Poor people,” she says, “are right to hate us.” Who wouldn’t be happy to renounce such a world?