Strewn with the trappings of sex, drugs, and rock and roll that arguably characterised many bestsellers throughout the 1990s, Virginie Despentes' Vernon Subutex novels might at first appear to be a throwback to a bygone age. While the character of Vernon sometimes resembles a Parisian Rob Fleming, Nick Hornby's dysfunctional record shop owner in High Fidelity, what emerges through his fall into destitution is far greater than neurotic self-pity and ranked lists of obscure records. The political polarisation of contemporary French society, and by extension much of modern society as a whole, is exploded by Despentes and translator Frank Wynne through a polyvocal narration that unflinchingly confronts us with that which is hardest to acknowledge: the values of the far-right have entered the mainstream, the left as we once understood it has failed, and the internet has fundamentally undermined our ability to understand ourselves.
Despentes' greatest achievement, however, is that by inhabiting voices from across society and the political spectrum, she serves up our ugly, complex, fractured moment in history as a not only familiar but weirdly cohesive world. The first volume of Vernon Subutex is a teeth-rattlingly compelling read in which the only route out is via self-reflection, and, alongside Olivia Laing's Crudo, represents one of only a handful of novels that feels genuinely mad enough for now.