Virginie Despentes first achieved notoriety on the French literary scene with 1994’s Baise-Moi, a feminist rape-and-revenge tale that sparked controversy for its blend of graphic sex and comic book violence. Since then, her novels have frequently packed a similarly visceral adrenaline-fuelled punch. Her literary ‘manifesto’, King Kong Théorie (2006), clarified her approach: she writes from the ‘outside’ to subvert the white, pretty, submissive, skinny, maternal, female media stereotype. She writes for the ugly, the undesirable and the unhappy: ‘toutes les exclues du grand marché à la bonne meuf’. Given such a commitment to the marginal, it is perhaps surprising that Apocalypse Baby was awarded the high-profile, and conservative, prix Renaudot in 2010. This mainstream acceptance does not, however, reflect any diminishment in her power to provoke. The uncompromising social vision that has made Despentes such a distinctive voice within contemporary French fiction is still here, but is tightly woven into a highly-readable narrative.
Apocalypse Baby showcases Despentes’ oft overlooked ability to tell a story. It has a fast-paced and compelling detective plot at its heart. Lucie, the first-person narrator and private investigator, is trailing Valentine, a troubled rich teenager, when the latter disappears. Given the chance to make amends, Lucie teams up with the enigmatic, ‘mythical’ and sexually-charged ‘Hyena’ to track her down. As the search intensifies, the reader is drawn from bourgeois Paris on a road trip to the non-conformist squats of Barcelona. The journey takes in many of the hallmarks of Despentes liminal literary world: sweaty punk gigs, graphic lesbian sex, liberal drug use and underground anti-capitalist groups. Sentences are short and make liberal use of coarse contemporary argot, with Lucie and the Hyena’s snappy mutual distrust particularly well rendered into English by translator Siân Reynolds.
Despentes’ text presents a physical journey, but also a trip into the past of its characters. The novel succeeds in stressing the neurotic insecurities of all of her protagonists – even the most self-assured. Lucie’s narrative is interleaved by shifts of narrative focus to the the characters they meet en route. François, Valentine’s father is a mediocre right-wing novelist, hooked on painkillers and obsessed with his waning literary profile. Vanessa, his ex-wife and Valentine’s mother, is a cynical money-grabber and desperate to cover up her North African roots. Yacine, her cousin, is a knife-carrying bad boy from the banlieu tower blocks and bristling with spite. The Hyena is particularly memorably-drawn: androgynous, alternately charming and acutely aggressive and intensely attractive to both males and females alike, but with a dark secret. Lucie, by contrast, is more reserved and self-evasive, described as a ‘dozy mollusc’ (p. 241) but undergoes a radical turnaround on reaching sunny Barcelona.
Alongside the skilfully-plotted story, Apocalypse Baby is also a highly-provocative novel. It paints a pitiless, unsparing picture of contemporary urban life. Very little is free from the text’s ire. Paris is ‘grey, noisy, depressing and morbid, while the ‘shipwreck of heterocentrism’ is frequently highlighted as a problem (p. 146). Young people, the rich, mothers, Christianity, journalists, marriage, airports, celebrities all find themselves under Despentes’ acerbic gaze. We live, the novel suggests, in an age where tension, cynicism and ‘vulgar indifference’ (p. 32) are the norm. As the Hyena stresses: ‘There is no dignity, there is no gentleness. All the people who were good and honourable, all the nice guys, have been wiped out’ (pp. 119-120). The novel is also repeatedly critical of the internet which, rather than an online utopia, encourages mindless narcissism. François writes his own glowing Amazon reviews and the Hyena observes a ‘frenzy of desire to broadcast, but without any receivers’ amongst the snap happy tourists she encounters (p. 210).
Is there, then, an overall message to Apocalypse Baby? It can be hard to tell since there is an overall unsettling ambivalence to Despentes text. The novel appears to desire a change to what it paints as the contemporary patriarchal capitalist status quo, but stops short of proposing any conclusive solutions. Indeed, the extent to which it ultimately endorses the novel’s unexpected, and explosive, conclusion remains devastatingly ambiguous. If there is a moment of hope that challenges the nihilism within Despentes’ bleak yet skilfully drawn novel, it comes from within human relationships, friendships and even love that can blossom against the odds, and often when least expected.