French punk rockers get old.
There’s a lot of Gen X history here, some aging French pop culture, and a general feeling of hysteria at living in a dystopian time. Let’s start from the top. Despentes (Pretty Things, 2018, etc.) is a French writer, filmmaker, etc. who is most famous for her debut novel, Baise-Moi (1992), which she adapted and directed into the controversial cult film. Like her characters, the author seems to have aged but not grown, which isn’t all that troublesome at a time when Danny Boyle has fashioned Irvine Welsh’s profane swindlers from Trainspotting (1993) into a sequel. This is literally a portrait gallery of French punk rockers passing middle age, most of them badly. The central figure is the titular 50-ish Vernon Subutex, who can pretty much be summed up by “used to own a record store.” (Thanks, High Fidelity.) Much like a TV series (Surprise! There's already a French series based on this book), this is a soap-operatic portrait of a variety of burnouts rather than an actual narrative. With Vernon as the central figure and the death of famous rock star Alex Bleach as the semi-uniting event, Despentes drops in on the lives of a dozen or so desperate people who don’t know how to fill the holes in their own lives. Vernon is simple: He's broke and couch-hopping at the best of times. Most notable is Xavier Fardin, nominally a screenwriter but mostly a psycho who makes Welsh’s Begbie look like a lapdog by comparison. We also visit Vernon’s weird ex, Sylvie; Laurent, a successful but obsessive filmmaker; ex-porn star Pamela, who is still competing with her dead rival; and Lydia Bazooka, a journalist who doesn’t know it’s too soon to start a biography of Alex. The writing here is evocative of any number of transgressive writers, including Welsh and Kathy Acker, but while the characters are tangible, the lack of a narrative keeps the book from feeling satisfying.
A caustic portrait of the blank generation facing middle age.