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Short-listed for the Man Booker International 2018
Who is Vernon Subutex? An urban legend. A fall from grace. The mirror who reflects us all.
Vernon Subutex was once the proprietor of Revolver, an infamous music shop in Bastille. His legend spread throughout Paris. But by the 2000s his shop is struggling. With his savings gone, his unemployment benefit cut and the friend who had been covering his rent suddenly dead, Vernon Subutex finds himself down and out on the Paris streets.
He has one final card up his sleeve. Even as he holds out his hand to beg for the first time, a throwaway comment he once made on Facebook is taking the internet by storm. Vernon does not realise this, but the word is out: Vernon Subutex has in his possession the last filmed recordings of Alex Bleach, the famous musician and Vernon's benefactor, who has only just died of a drug overdose. A crowd of people from record producers to online trolls and porn stars are now on Vernon's trail.
Translated from the French by Frank Wynne.
Ce que les auditeurs disent de Vernon Subutex One
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Despentes' guide to Europe today
Vernon Subutex is in a predicament. He used to be the owner of a celebrated record store, which went under when the internet made it obsolete. More recently, his semi-stable lifestyle fell apart when the celebrity friend who for years helped him stay financially afloat suddenly died. As Vernon’s world collapses in slow motion, he comes into contact with a variety of different characters that reflect some of the many perspectives that are woven together into Europe's social fabric, a very heterogeneous mix. Everyone is living his or her own personal drama and is fiercely attached to a specific, subjective viewpoint. The story takes place in Paris and Barcelona, the two cities that author Virginie Despentes calls home. Book One of what is now a trilogy, was originally published in French in 2015 and it still feels very current (except that vinyl records now seem to be profitable again, I think?) I can see why this book has been such a big hit and was made into a TV series (which I haven't yet watched). It was very cleverly put together and some of the writing really does shine in a darkly comedic way. However, much of it feels like an artificial, cerebral construction. It’s as if in an effort to make her characters relevant to today’s discussion, Despentes had extracted them out of news samples. Rather than real human beings, they feel too much like media narratives. The result is a kaleidoscopic picture of our zeitgeist (an ambitious effort) that ultimately rings hollow. I prefer more intimate, heartfelt stories that strike a chord in the reader, because they come from deep within and I didn’t get that from this book.
The narrator, Chris Harper, nails the mood of the book. He often communicates a cynical and angry vibe, but gives Vernon a more human and fragile touch. While his pronunciation of French isn't perfect, it does the trick. He could have put a little more effort into the few bits that are read in other languages, like Spanish or Catalan. Otherwise, he gets it right.