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. Continue reading