French Feminist Pulp That Spares No Pain: On Virginie Despentes

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, June 30, 2016

“I AM WRITING as an ugly one for the ugly ones.” So begins “King Kong Theory,” the French writer and filmmaker ­Virginie Despentes’s agreeably dyspeptic feminist manifesto published in France in 2006 and America four years later, in a translation by Stéphanie Benson. Despentes offers the book as a love letter to her kin: the “too fat,” “too hairy,” “too masculine,” “women who don’t turn men on.” This is no ploy for pity, mind you. “I would never swap ­places,” she declares. “Being Virginie Despentes is a more interesting business than anything else going on out there.”

Who would disagree? A onetime enfant terrible of the French literary establishment, who went on to win the prestigious Prix Renaudot in 2010, Despentes is perhaps best known for her notorious 2000 film “Baise-Moi,” based on her novel of the same name — “ ‘Thelma and Louise’ as scripted by Lorena Bobbitt,” in the words of one reviewer. But her real legacy lies in harrowing a genre all her own: the feminist pulp novel, gory and romantic screwball stories frequently featuring two well-armed, pissed-off women. One such novel, BYE BYE BLONDIE (The Feminist Press, paper, $17.95), will be released this month in a translation by Sian Reynolds, both singly and in a box set with “King Kong Theory” and the ­Renaudot-winning novel “Apocalypse Baby,” which was also translated by Reynolds and was published in America last year.

Despentes has become a kind of cult hero, a patron saint to invisible women: the monstrous and marginalized, the sodden, weary and wildly unemployable, the kind of woman who can scarcely be propped up let alone persuaded to lean in. “I am not remotely ashamed of not being a hot sexy number but I am livid that — as a girl who doesn’t attract men — I am constantly made to feel as if I shouldn’t even be around,” she writes in “King Kong Theory.” “We have always existed, and never spoken. Even today, when women publish lots of novels, you rarely get female characters that are unattractive or plain, unsuited to loving men or to being loved by them.” These are the very women she creates: Manu and Nadine, who cheerfully carve up rapists and bad tricks in “Baise-Moi”; Gloria in “Bye Bye Blondie,” whose terrifying tantrums frighten away her lovers; Lucie and the Hyena in “Apocalypse Baby,” private investigators who spy on the wayward daughters of the rich. Her heroines are plain and very powerful; they are Roman candles, agents of chaos.

Despentes’s work is frequently situated within a ­tradition of French extremist art that examines sex — particularly violent sex — with a kind of Flaubertian detachment. Think of the Marquis de Sade; “Story of O”; Georges Bataille’s novels; Catherine Millet’s memoir, “The Sexual Life of Catherine M.”; the films of Catherine Breillat and Claire Denis. The sex in the film version of “Baise-Moi” is unsimulated and, to most people’s tastes, not very pretty (gun, anus). Yet “the point is not to be shocking,” Despentes has insisted in interviews, “but to change the shape of things.” This is the idealism that is so often overlooked in her work — she makes the hidden violence explicit, and almost always leaves open the possibility of a happy ending, however unhinged. It’s a commitment to redemption that reminds you that the novels directly channel the life; there’s nothing arid, nothing emptily philosophical in her considerations.

Despentes roved widely before turning to writing, spending her teenage years hitchhiking and following rock bands. She swore off regular work after a miserable supermarket job, and did stints as a music journalist, ­pornographic-movie reviewer, prostitute and masseuse. For a young woman who already felt largely invisible, the prostitution was especially appealing: She enjoyed, she later wrote, the “easy power (over men, over money), strong emotions, the discovery of a more interesting self.” Slices of her experience crop up in her books — the best scene in “Bye Bye Blondie,” in which a psychiatrist tries to understand why the young punk heroine is making herself look so unappealing, draws on Despentes’s own time in a mental institution as a teenager. But the defining moment of her life was her rape at the age of 17 by three men when she was hitchhiking home from London. “It is a founding event. Of who I am as a writer, and as a woman who is no longer quite a woman,” she wrote in “King Kong Theory.” She returns to the scene in her fiction obliquely and directly — sometimes it’s just a mention of striped tights like those she was wearing when attacked; other times, a similar rape sets the plot in motion, as in “Baise-Moi.”

Despentes’s understanding of rape shapes the feminism in her work. Her books aren’t much concerned with the material conditions of women’s lives — there’s only glancing acknowledgment in “King Kong Theory”: “Why didn’t anyone invent the equivalent of Ikea for child care or Mac for housework?” Her true subject is women’s physical vulnerability, the way the threat of rape is central in how the sexes are oriented toward each other and how women collude with men in shrinking themselves, bargaining away their power in order to be desired. She has punk politics — a sustained commitment to rage, which she believes is leached out of women too early and too easily. They’re schooled in docility (a favorite word of hers): “Hiding our feelings . . . and not listening to yourself. Not listening to what is wrong for you and smiling when you’re just destroyed inside.” The anger coursing through these books is very frequently misguided, inappropriate or plain silly — Gloria in “Bye Bye Blondie” is so addicted to rage, she attacks herself when no one else is around — but there’s still something purifying in it. Rage, for Despentes, is an antidote to complacency and despair. “Anger is not depression,” she has said in interviews. “Anger is working with desire and humor. Anger is destructive, but very active.” Gloria again: “She’s not up to speed with the huge changes that have happened to her contemporaries. For instance, their recent passion for watching trashy TV shows. As if it were fun, as if it were innocent, as if it were anything but pure surrender, and as such, totally unacceptable. She could give them a hard time about it, but she senses that other people are tired and discouraged. Not everyone is like her: still ready to go mad with rage and smash the place up. Most people need rest and something to amuse them, otherwise they wouldn’t get up in the morning.”

Docility, lassitude, complacency — these are adult failings in Despentes. Her muses are always teenage girls: restless, contemptuous young things bucking for experience, much like the girl she once was. “King Kong Theory,” in fact, was conceived as a book about feminism “that a 15-year-old girl could read.” She reserves her purest affection for her “punkettes,” with their shaved heads, long nails and short skirts, their missing teeth — and her most intense contempt for “the wretched fauna” surrounding youth: teachers, cops, counselors, parents. She’s likely to agree with Valentine, the missing girl in “Apocalypse Baby,” that teenagers don’t start using drugs because they’re bored or to escape their problems. “They get high to destroy their intelligence. Because if they kept it intact, just when it’s at its peak, they wouldn’t be able to bear the pain of the disgust they’d feel for their parents.”

Too often, however, the voices of her punkettes are blunted in translation. “It never quite works, reading this sort of pulpy, street book in translation,” the critic Jenny Turner wrote of “Apocalypse Baby” in The London Review of Books. The grit is gone. Menacing teenagers sound like retirees: “She binge drinks,” one says of Valentine. “She knocks it back till she can’t stand up straight, and if you’re at a party, no prizes for guessing you’ll have no fun.” Language that should lash and sting congeals into cliché: “In families, things are rarely cut and dried,” Gloria observes on returning home from the mental institution. “Life had gone on.” Maybe the difficulty lies in translating this kind of fiction, or maybe the fault lies with Reynolds as a translator; either way, readers will do better to turn to Benson’s translation of the nonfiction “King Kong Theory,” which is full of unleashed, fluent fury. Here at last, Despentes’s work is all untramelled id — fractious, noisy, unafraid of embarrassment and impossible to contain.

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