Pulsing with nervous energy, swerving with alarming alacrity, driven to upend every assumption: Virginie Despentes’s Apocalypse Baby is a tightly wound spring of a novel. Its liberally sprinkled curse words and louche characters seem dredged from the dregs of our world—not so much invented as deployed to shock us into realizing how much we comfortable readers might take for granted. Sitting in a car, the Hyena tells Lucie, the narrator for much of the novel, with blunt casualness: “I like girls. I like girls too much. Of course I prefer dykes, but I like all girls.” There is an uncomfortable hint of deviancy in this line—but what else should we expect from a novel by Despentes?
If Michel Houellebecq has become a succès de scandale for his novels driven by misogynistic sex and Gallic anomie, then Virginie Despentes may well be his female counterpart: a brutally feminist figure and spokesperson who draws her fame from her novels driven by unconstrained sex and Gallic fury. “It seems to me that being Virginie Despentes is a more interesting business than anything else going on out there,” she says in her autobiographical book King Kong Theory, and it’s quite possible that she may be right. Her first novel, Baise-Moi was translated, parenthetically, as “Rape Me,” an indirect translation that betrayed the actual meaning: “Fuck Me.” After its publication in 1993, it had drawn enough attention that Despentes was able to spin the story into a film that she wrote and co-directed, a feat she repeated with her 2004 novel Bye-Bye Blondie. Her other works have cemented her reputation as a transgressive writer concerned with social mores only to the degree that they hamper her and that she can violate them.
“There is a real connection between writing and prostitution,” Despentes insists in King Kong Theory: “freeing oneself, doing what isn’t done, delivering up one’s intimacy, exposing oneself to widespread judgment, accepting one’s exclusion from the group. And, more particularly as a woman, becoming public.” Being female is often distinguished from a default assumption of masculinity—an assumption that has pushed her toward white-hot fury. “We did not intend to do anything special with [Baise-Moi’s] women characters,” Despentes said in an interview, “but I suppose we just allowed female characters to behave as if they did not carry cunts and tits, just behave as cinema characters, regular ones. [For the film’s critics] That was the big deal.”
But Despentes’s subversive characters circumvent expectations at every opportunity, as if they were iterations of Despentes herself. She has described herself as a “free electron, a sort of anarcho-feminist,” and chapters of King Kong Theory touch on her time as a prostitute, a peep-show attraction, a record-store sales clerk, and journalist covering rock. Appropriately enough, her protagonists often come from similar lines of work, from the two sex workers of Baise-moi to the record-store owner of her trilogy-in-progress Vernon Subutex. The feminism—if that is the right word—of her work is every bit as much an act of social rebellion as these underground and punk jobs might seem to be for a genteel French onlooker.
In Despentes’s world, barriers exist to be broken, although gender is a far more pernicious barrier than any other she has encountered. King Kong Theory lays out the feminist and theoretical underpinnings necessary to properly understand Despentes’s other books, and it hints at her next novel, Apocalypse Baby, with its final words:
Feminism is a revolution . . . Feminism is a collective adventure, for women, men, and everyone else. A revolution, well under way. A worldview. A choice. It’s not a matter of contrasting women’s small advantages with men’s small assets, but of sending the whole lot flying.
And with that I bid you goodbye, girls, and a better journey . . .
“A journey” is exactly the right way to describe Apocalypse Baby, perhaps one of the most incendiary picaresques to come out of France in recent memory. The premise is simple enough: a private detective manages to be incompetent enough to lose her fifteen-year-old charge, Valentine, and is ordered by her boss and the missing girl’s grandmother to find her, wherever she may have gone. Before we quite realize it, another woman has entered the scene, known only as the Hyena, and immediately proves her worth as a tough negotiator and a skilled bounty hunter. She drags the detective Lucie along not because she will be of great help—it is already clear just how incompetent and naïve the book’s narrator is—but so that Lucie might learn something, whether of tracking down escapees or learning just how little law and reason matter.
There are meetings in nightclubs. Drives through Paris. Casual interrogations with Valentine’s classmates, with the guys Valentine has had sex with (and a particularly violent confrontation when the Hyena suspects one guy of not being entirely honest). Expenses and extravagances pile up as the search careens from catastrophe to putative success.
As the novel shifts from Paris, where the disappearance happened, to Barcelona, where the Hyena and Lucie suspect their quarry of having gone, the book turns its attention to the various people Valentine has known. Her father, François, is a Gallimard author with a cortisone dependency; her stepmother,Claire, struggles not to be the overbearing archetype of fairy tales; her cousin, Yacine, is a ball of fury; her actual mother, Vanessa, is remote and insistently resistant to all reminders of her past; and then the book turns its eye, disorientingly, on the Hyena herself and then Valentine. As these microportraits accumulate, the reader slowly starts to get a full understanding of what perhaps might be at stake in l’affaire Valentine. Why, after all, might we readers be compelled to keep reading about a missing teenager?
For much of the novel, there seem to be two converging arguments undergirding the book’s trajectory. One, advocated by the Hyena as Lucie watches her move with the alarming precision and languor of a predator, is that “Heterosexuality is as natural as the electric fence they put around a field of cows.” She says these words shortly after finding out that Lucie has had a lesbian affair, almost certainly due to her own machinations. She underscores her point: “From now on, big girl, welcome to the wide open spaces.” Perhaps Apocalypse Baby can be read as a contemporary Sentimental Education à la Despentes that elevates its protagonist, Lucie, from naïve heterosexuality to a far less constrained view of romance and sex. This interpretation alone would make the novel a logical successor to the imperatives of King Kong Theory.
But the other argument, more closely tied to the teenager the two women are tracking down, hews to the realm of technology. Early in the book, it becomes clear that Lucie was able to lose Valentine only because Valentine never used a smartphone, nor even sent an email, during her time under Lucie’s watch. The immediate consequence is that Valentine has no GPS tracker on her. But the larger reason is perhaps even more surprising and puzzling. “These are the last fun years on the Internet!” some of Valentine’s classmates insist. “We should be trying to defend it and take it over.” But Valentine resists, thinking of her off-the-grid identity as being “like giving up smoking pot: you got more energy and space in your brain . . . You can’t at the same time want to start the revolution and be visible to the forces of order.” Her escape from technology turns out to be an entrance into revolutionary furor—and to say anything further would ruin the explosive magic of the book’s climax.
Do these two arguments equating different cultural and ideological stances with openness and freedom actually bear any relation to each other? Not in the pages of Apocalypse Baby. In this way, the book is incomplete, not quite self-sufficient. The puzzled reader will have to take a dive into King Kong Theory to understand how Despentes makes the turn from a straightforward detective novel into something larger and more sinister:
Motherhood has become the most glorified aspect of the female condition. In the West, it is also the area in which women’s power has increased the most. The mother has long wielded total influence over her daughters; she now has it over her sons as well. We are told in every possible way that Mommy knows what’s right for her child, as if she were automatically gifted with that stupendous natural ability. This is the domestic parallel to what is happening in public life. The increasingly watchful state knows better than us what we should be eating, drinking, smoking, ingesting; what is suitable for us to read, watch, understand; how we should travel, spend our money, and entertain ourselves. When President Sarkozy demands a police presence in schools or Ségolène Royal instructs the army to patrol certain areas of major cities, they are not showing children a virile embodiment of the law but the extension of the mother’s absolute power. She alone knows how to punish, to control, to keep children in a state of extended babyhood. A state that conceives of itself as an all-powerful mother is a fascistic state.
When Despentes makes such a strong connection between overbearing mothers and overbearing nations, the decision to title her next novel Apocalypse Baby becomes all the more striking. Valentine is a runaway who has grown up with a weak-willed father and an absentee mother; it’s worth noting that she has violently chased away every one of her father’s lovers. If Apocalypse Baby can be read as a political allegory, it is not an allegory confined solely to France, nor is it an allegory that provides any easy answers. Despentes hints at a feminist revolution that not merely cultural or social, but explicitly—and even violently—political.
“Apocalypse Baby,” then, becomes not only a designation for Valentine, but a model for the revolutionary figure. Grander than life, the novel escapes us, embodying the relationship its author saw between writing and prostitution: it frees itself, does what isn’t done, delivers up intimacy, exposes itself to widespread judgment, accepts its exclusion from the group. If passion and fury can spark change in the real world, is it not possible that a fiery novel—unshackled from its maternal creator, escaped into the world—may do the same also?
Jeffrey Zuckerman is Digital Editor of Music & Literature. His writings and translations have appeared in Best European Fiction, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Tin House, The White Review, and Vice.