After #MeToo

Virginie Despentes, whose books have sold upwards of a million and a half copies in France, prefers dramatic landscapes to the flatness of the everyday. Her pseudonym (she was born Virginie Daget), literally means “of the slopes”, reflecting a vertiginous literary sensibility, displayed throughout an oeuvre strewn with breakdowns, relapses, murders and other forms of gendered violence, along with petty crimes and homelessness. Having moved to Paris when she was in her twenties, Despentes has lived in the city’s hilly nineteenth arrondissement, close to the Buttes-Chaumont park, off and on for many years.

Historically a magnet for bohemians, and now for sunbathers, tourists and bourgeois couples sipping spritzers, the park is the locus around which Despentes’s motley troupe of characters orbits. Her most famous creation, the bankrupt yet incorrigibly charming record-store owner Vernon Subutex, whose post-economic crisis capers animate a three-part trilogy (see TLS, November 9, 2018, and July 10, 2020), garnered her the label of a twenty-first-century Balzac or Zola. In a clip filmed for French television, Despentes stood atop one of the park’s higher points and read aloud from her nonfiction book. King Kong theory (2006; King Kong Theory, 2010): “I am writing as an ugly one for the ugly ones: the old hags, the dykes, the frigid, the unfucked, the unfuckables, the neurotics, the psychos, for all those girls who don’t get a look in the universal market of the consumable chick.” Wearing low-slung jeans and a short-sleeved polo shirt, Despentes smirked as she spoke. In so doing she injected a sluggish French feminist movement – long dominated by elegantly high-minded thinkers such as Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous – with some much-needed humour, verve and grit.

Writing for the chicks who failed or refused to conform to the compulsory narrative of heterosexuality was the aim of her debut, Baise-moi (1994; Fuck me, 2002), in which two women hitchhike around France seeking violent justice after being gang raped; and a similar impetus lurked behind the equally rageful and cartoonish later novels Bye bye Blondie (2004) and Apocalypse baby (2010; Apocalypse baby, 2015). Yet the Vernon trilogy (2015-17), by inhabiting the viewpoint of a disaffected male, represented a sharp swerve in direction and turned Despentes – already a cult figure – into a robust household name in France. The trilogy, with its overlapping storylines, unvarnished domestic settings and radical empathy for all faces of the French social spectrum, was a sensation. Vernon provided both escapism and lucid sociopolitical analysis at a time when blindsided by divisive gilets jaunes Protests and terror attacks – France faced one of the most vulnerable junctures in its history.

despentes new novel, Cher connard (Dear Asshole), has been hailed as the literary event of 2022’s rentree literaire. Though it was overlooked for the Prix Goncourt (Despentes’s prior role as a jury member apparently rendered her “too close” to the selection process), the book sold more than 70,000 copies in its first month of publication and at the time of writing stands as the third bestselling novel in the country. Its primary subject matter, in typically thorny and unflinching Despentes style, is the aftershock of the watershed #MeToo, or #BalanceTonPorc, movement in France and the sexual harassment revelations it involved. With its fluorescent yellow and pink dust jacket, the novel has seemed to be everywhere on the Metro this fall (at least on lignes 11, 5 and 2), and its spiky aphorisms keep appearing as captions on my Instagram.

Cher connard is written in epistolary form. The authors of the emails and text messages that structure it are Rebecca Latte, a fifty-year-old actress and unapologetic diva (apparently modeled on close real-life chronies of Despentes, Beatrice Dalle and the punk provocateur Lydia Lunch) and Oscar Jayack, a modestly successful forty-something novelist and recovering addict. The voice of a minor third character, Zoé Katana, is also woven throughout, in the form of the staunchly feminist blog posts she writes. At the start of the novel Oscar has been canceled following his harassment of a young female press officer formerly employed by his publisher. Sighting Rebecca on the street in Paris, and having apparently learned nothing from his misstep, he proceeds to troll the actress on social media, lamenting that a former “sublime” woman has “today become a toad” (my translations). Refusing the muteness of the passive victim, Rebecca responds with a vitriolic message expressing her fervid hope that Oscar’s children (“a guy like you tends to reproduce”) fall “under a lorry”. She opens “Dear Asshole” – and thus the novel begins.

The reader must suspend any disbelief that two characters of such antagonistically different social and political beliefs could be subsequently drawn into an addictive, consistent and ultimately deeply tender dialogue. Yet Cher connard unfolds against the shuttering backdrop of the pandemic’s confinement, when so many of us did indeed slide into odd virtual exchanges we might otherwise have little amused. The case it makes for platonic and ultimately affirmative epistolary friendship between men and women – the exchanges gradually allowing for the disclosure of the most intimate confessions – is underpinned by the likelihood that the correspondents will never meet in person. Though hints are dropped that they might one day cross paths at an AA meeting – the invigorating force of their mutual sobriety (Rebecca from alcohol, Oscar from hard drugs) is one thing they do have in common – the closest thing they entertain here is Zoom , “a hellscape”, Oscar quips, “which no one knows how to work”. The pair’s relationship, in a relentlessly performative and assertive online age, flourishes in privacy: in not being publicly performed.

Unlike the Vernon trilogy, with its virtuosic twists and turns, Cher connard is a little thin on plot, relying on the voice and personality of its charismatic interlocators – mainly Rebecca, with her incisive witticisms. She and Oscar hail from the same working-class neighbor in Nancy, and references to the latter’s sister, Corinne, who became a militant lesbian (like Despentes), inject more narrative spice. The tone is perhaps more reminiscent of Choderlos de Laclos than that of Balzac or Zola, but the novel does succeed in exploring a dizzying variety of hot-button topics currently at the forefront of the French cultural imagination: not only Covid, addiction and #BalanceTonPorc, but psychoanalysis, sex work, fame, transphobia, artificial intelligence, femicides and the now ubiquitous French literary subject of class mobility. The effect is – deliciously – of getting Despent’s own take on a broad swell of topical debates (some critics have even opined that the two main characters reflect the yin and yang of her persona) – even if, as we bounce from Candy Crush to Facebook (“Tinder for the middle-aged”), the sweep can feel overwhelming.

Cher connard is also full of wry nodes and deftly self-conscious winks to the limitations of literature. It climaxes with a final social media kerfuffle in which Oscar visits Zoé in a psychiatric clinic following her breakdown. He is photographed in the process, causing feminists to turn against Zoé’s perceived “treason”, a fallout that leads to Oscar and Rebecca chafing against the epistolary form. “Maybe we should meet in person,” suggests Oscar. “It’s true we are beginning to become a little squeezed in these letters.” The ending, expressed by both Zoé and Rebecca, suggests that, if feminism is to survive its narrowly judgemental contemporary moment, then it cannot deploy the same tactics of violence – sneering, attacking and canceling – as its long-standing oppressors. At the same time it suggests that the investment in “women” as a collective social group formed from equal experiences of oppression is a harmful myth. To say the word ‘feminism’ is like saying the word ‘potato’, comments Zoé. Charlotte, Belle de Fontenay, Franceline or Doré? This may also be a sly reference to how peeling potatoes has long been a signifier for domestic female ennui.

Cher connard signals a more reflective stage in Despent’s development. It suggests that the only way out of our current political dead end is more dialogue, listening and compassion. And if such a thesis feels, on first reading, like a disappointing leveling out by this once radical punk author, then this is a criticism anticipated by Despentes, who has Zoé responding to her online detractors in the novel’s final pages: “I didn’t. t tailor the perfect little text that would go with your handbag. So you jumped on me… You didn’t engage. You just attacked.”

Dear Virginie, I’m sorry that I doubted you.

Alice Blackhurstis the author ofLuxury, Sensation and the Moving Image2021. She is currently working on a book about Marguerite Duras’sThe Lover

Browse the books from this week’s edition of theTLSat the TLS Shop

The post After #MeToo appeared first on TLS.

Leave a Comment