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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Vernon Subutex 1

A Novel

Vernon Subutex (Volume 1)

Virginie Despentes; Translated from the French by Frank Wynne

FSG Originals


THE WINDOWS OF THE BUILDING opposite are already lit. The silhouettes of cleaning women bustle around the vast open-plan office of what is probably an advertising agency. They start work at six. Vernon usually wakes up just before they arrive. He aches for a strong coffee, a yellow-filtered cigarette, he would like to make a slice of toast and eat breakfast while scanning the headlines of Le Parisien on his laptop.

It has been weeks since he last bought coffee. The cigarettes he rolls every morning by gutting the cigarette butts from the night before are so skinny it is like puffing on paper. There is nothing to eat in the cupboards. But he has kept up the payments to his internet provider. The standing order goes out on the day his housing benefit hits his account. For several months now, this has been paid directly to his landlord, but the bill has still been paid out, so far. Let’s hope it lasts.

His phone contract has lapsed and he no longer bothers to pay for re-ups. In the face of disaster, Vernon decided on a course of action: he played the guy who has not noticed anything unusual. He watched as, in slow motion, things began to collapse, then the collapse accelerated. But Vernon has lost none of his indifference, none of his elegance.

The first thing to go was his unemployment benefit. By post he received a copy of the report written by his adviser. He got along well with her. They had been meeting regularly for almost three years in the cramped cubicle where she killed off houseplants. Thirtyish, bubbly, fake redhead, plump, well stacked, Madame Bodard liked to talk about her two sons, she worried about them a lot, regularly took them to see a pediatrician in the hope that he would diagnose some form of hyperactivity disorder that might justify sedating them. But the doctor told her they were in fine form and sent her packing. Madame Bodard told Vernon how she had been to see AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses with her parents when she was young. Now she preferred to listen to Camille and Benjamin Biolay and Vernon abstained from making any offensive remarks. They had talked at great length about his case: between the ages of twenty and forty-five, he had been a record dealer. These days, his chances of finding work were slimmer than if he had been a coal miner. Madame Bodard had suggested retraining. Together they had perused the various courses open to him—AFPA, GRETA, CFA—and they parted on good terms, agreeing to meet again to reassess the situation. Three years later, his application to study for a diploma in administration had not been accepted. From his point of view, he felt he had done everything he needed to do, he had become an expert in applications and prepared them with extraordinary efficiency. Over time, he had come to feel that his job was to bum around on the internet looking for vacancies that corresponded to his profile, then send off résumés so that they could send back proof of his rejection. Who would want to train someone who was pushing fifty? He had managed to dredge up a work placement in a concert venue out in the suburbs and another in an art-house cinema—but aside from going out occasionally, keeping abreast of the network problems on the RER and meeting people, it mostly left him with a dreary sense of waste.

In the copy of the report that Madame Bodard had written to justify his being struck off, she mentioned things he had talked about in a spirit of banter, like spending a little money to go and see the Stooges play Le Mans or losing a hundred euros in a poker game. As he flicked through his case file, rather than worrying about the unemployment benefit he would no longer receive, he felt embarrassed for her. His adviser was about thirty years old. What did she earn—how much does a woman like that make—two thousand a month before tax? Big money. But kids of this generation had been raised to the rhythms of the Voice in the Big Brother house, a world in which the telephone can ring at any time to give the order to fire half of your colleagues. Eliminate thy neighbor is the golden rule of the games they have been spoon-fed since childhood. How can one now expect them to find it morbid?

When he received the letter from the benefits office, Vernon thought that this might motivate him to find “something.” As though the worsening of his already parlous situation might have a beneficial influence on his ability to dig his way out of the quagmire he was bogged down in …

He was not the only person for whom things had rapidly deteriorated. Until the early 2000s, a lot of people were doing pretty well. You still saw couriers becoming label managers, freelance hacks getting jobs as columnists in TV supplements, even the laziest fuckers seemed to wind up running the record department of the local Megastore … At the tail end of the peloton, those least motivated by the prospect of success managed to get by doing contract work for music festivals, working as a roadie on a tour, sticking posters on hoardings … That said, Vernon was well placed to understand the threat posed by the tsunami that was Napster, it never occurred to him that the ship would go down with all hands lost.

Some said it was karma, the industry had experienced an extraordinary upturn in the era of CDs—selling their clients their whole discography on a medium that cost half the price to make and was sold for twice the price in shops … with no real benefit to music fans, since no one had ever complained about vinyl records. The drawback of karma theory was that if there was even a grain of truth in the notion that “what goes around comes around,” people would have long since stopped being assholes.

His record shop was called Revolver. Vernon had started working there as a shop assistant at the age of twenty and had taken over when the owner decided to move to Australia, where he became a restaurateur. If anyone had told him that first year that he would spend most of his life in this shop, he would probably have said, don’t talk shit, I’ve got too many things I want to do. Only when you get old do you realize that the expression “fucking hell but time flies” most appositely describes the workings of the process.

He had had to close up shop in 2006. The most difficult thing was finding someone to take over the lease, to kiss goodbye to the prospect of turning a profit on the deal, but even so his first year being unemployed—with no benefits, since he was self-employed—went well: a commission to write a dozen entries for an encyclopedia of rock, a few days’ cash in hand manning the ticket desk for some festival in the suburbs, record reviews for the music press … meanwhile he went online and began selling off everything he had salvaged from the shop. Most of the stock had been sold at a reduced price, but there was still some vinyl, a few box sets, and an extensive collection of posters and T-shirts he had refused to sell off cheap. On eBay, he made three times what he had anticipated, without any of the fuss of having to keep accurate accounts. You simply had to be reliable, to go to the post office once a week, to be careful how you packaged the merchandise. The first year had been a blast. Life is often a game of two halves: in the first half it lulls you, makes you think you’re in control; in the second, when it sees you’re relaxed and helpless, it comes around again and grinds you to a pulp.

Vernon had just had enough time to rediscover his love of sleeping in—for more than twenty years, come hell or hideous hangover, he had rolled up the metal shutters on the shop six days a week no matter what. Only three times in twenty-five years had he entrusted the keys to one of his colleagues: a bout of gastric flu, a dental implant fitting, and an attack of sciatica. It took him a year to relearn the knack of lazing in bed and reading in the mornings if he felt like it. His preferred leisure activity was cranking up the radio and streaming porn on the web. He was familiar with the entire oeuvre of Sasha Grey, Bobbi Starr, and Nina Roberts. He also enjoyed an afternoon nap, he would read for half an hour and then nod off.

In the second year, he had handled the picture research for a biography of Johnny Hallyday, signed up for welfare with the RSA—which had just changed from being the RSI—and he had started selling off his personal collection. He did well out of eBay, he would never have guessed what fetishistic folly stirred World 2.0, everything was up for sale: merchandising, comics, plastic figurines, posters, fanzines, coffee-table books, T-shirts … At first, when you start selling, you hold back, but a little incentive and suddenly it becomes a pleasure to get rid of everything. Gradually, he had cleared his home of every last trace of his former life.

He came to appreciate the true glories of a peaceful morning with no customers to constantly bust his balls. He had all the time in the world to listen to music now. The Kills, the White Stripes, and sundry Strokes could release all the albums they liked, he no longer needed to give a shit. He couldn’t bear the constant torrent of new stuff, it was endless, to keep up you’d have to plug into the web and be drip-fed new sounds on a constant loop.

The downside was that he hadn’t anticipated that it would be a gruelling slog to get girls after he closed down the shop. People say the rock industry is a man’s game, but people talk a lot of shit: he had always had a string of female customers that was continually replenished. He had an understanding when it came to girls. He didn’t do monogamy, and the more he tried to brush them off, the more they stalked him. When some babe came in with her boyfriend looking for a CD, he could guarantee that within the week she would be back, on her own this time. Then there were all the girls who worked in the neighborhood. The beauticians at the salon on the corner, the girls in the shop across the street, the girls at the post office, the girls in the restaurant, the girls in the bar, the girls down at the swimming pool. A vast collection of potential conquests that was lost to him the day he handed back the keys.

He had never had regular girlfriends. Like a lot of guys he knew, Vernon was haunted by the memory of the girl who got away. His was called Séverine. He had been twenty-eight. He was so attached to his reputation as a player that he refused to recognize that she was the one until it was too late. He was a big cat prowling the streets, wild, untameable, all his friends were blown away by the elegant nonchalance with which he moved from girl to girl. Or this was how he saw himself, at least. The one-night stand, the lone wolf, the guy who never gets tied down, the guy who won’t be twisted around some woman’s little finger. He had no illusions: like a lot of insecure young men, he found it reassuring to know that he could make women cry.

Séverine was tall and hyper—so hyper she could be exhausting—she had legs that went on forever, she looked like a Parisian rich bitch, the sort of girl who can wear a sheepskin jacket and make it look cool. She grabbed life by the balls, there was nothing she couldn’t do around the house, even changing a tire on the hard shoulder didn’t faze her, she was the sort of rich brat who was used to sorting things out herself and never complaining. Which didn’t mean that, in private, she didn’t know how to loosen up. When he thinks about her, he sees her naked, sprawled in bed; she loved to spend whole weekends there. She kept her turntable on the floor next to the mattress so she didn’t have to get up to change the record. Piled up around the bed she had her cigarettes, her bottle of water, and the telephone, whose spiral cable was constantly tangled. This was her kingdom. For a few short months, he was granted access.

She was the kind of girl whose mother had taught her not to burst into tears when you find out your boyfriend is cheating on you. Séverine gritted her teeth. Vernon had been stupidly caught in the act—and had been surprised that she did not dump him there and then. She had said “I’ll leave you to it,” and forgiven him. He concluded that she didn’t have the strength to lose him and began to feel a slight contempt for her weakness of character. And so he did it again. They had had three or four screaming matches, each time she said if you keep pushing your luck, I’m out of here, you’ll leave me no choice, and each time Vernon was convinced it was just an empty threat. He never saw it coming. When he found out she was seeing someone else, Vernon stuffed her things into a cardboard box and left them downstairs on the sidewalk. The image of her clothes, her books, her perfume bottles being ransacked by passersby and strewn outside his door would haunt him for years. He never heard from her again. It had taken a long time for Vernon to realize he would never get over her. He had a talent for ignoring his feelings. He often thinks about what his life would be like if he had stayed with Séverine. If he had had the courage to turn his back on what he had been, if he had known that one way or another we are stripped of the things we care about, that the best thing you can do is plan ahead. She had kids, obviously. She was that kind of girl. The kind who settles down. Without losing any of her charm. Not a bitch. A bewitching woman who probably eats organic and gets all het up about global warming, but he is convinced that she still listens to Tricky and Janis Joplin. If he had stayed with her, he would have found another job after he closed the shop, because they would have had kids and he would have had no choice. And right now he would be worrying what to do about his son smoking weed or his daughter’s anorexia. Oh well. He likes to think he minimized the damage.

Copyright © 2015 by Virginie Despentes and Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle

Translation copyright © 2017 by Frank Wynne