Vernon Subutex 1

Virginie Despentes

From the provocative writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes comes volume one of her acclaimed trilogy of novels, short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize. Vernon Subutex was once the proprietor of Revolver, an infamous music shop in Paris, where his name was legend throughout Paris. By the 2000s, however, with the arrival of the internet and the decline in CD and vinyl sales, his shop is struggling. It closes, and before long, his savings are gone. When the mysterious rock star who had been covering his rent suddenly drops dead of a drug overdose, Subutex finds himself launched on an epic saga of couch-surfing, boozing, and coke-snorting before finally winding up homeless. Just as he resigns himself to life as a panhandler, a throwaway Facebook comment takes the internet by storm. The word is out: Subutex is lugging around VHS tapes shot by that same dead rock musician—his last recordings on this earth. Soon a crowd of wild characters, from screen writers to social media groupies, from porn stars to failed musicians to random misfits, are hot on Vernon’s trail—but Vernon is none the wiser.

The music is sick! This guy’s a genius. Always trust Gaëlle. When they first saw him, everyone thought who is this aging freak, then he hooks up his iPod—the man’s a fucking God— it’s like holy water in your ears. The Klipsch speakers are pumping out Rod Stewart—this guy is fucking crazy, he’ll play anything, but it works. He’s the Nadia Comăneci of the playlist. After tonight, he’s going to be Kiko’s DJ in residence. Red Bull and fat rails of coke, clusters of girls start to show up. They’re tipsy, slutty, up for it—just the way we like them after dark. Some dickwad throws up over the pot plants. Kiko grabs the guy’s shoulder and spits in his ear, “Get the fuck out of my house, go on, fuck off,” the guy is mumbling something but Kiko shoves him toward the door, he’s not listening. He hates losers who can’t hold their drink. A diaphanous blonde, all skin and bones, is tottering on a pair of freakish heels. She looks like she’s walking on a tightrope. Her shoulder blades stick out, he feels the urge to shatter a bone. Neurons fried. For a second he considers clambering over the terrace rail and throwing himself off. Just for the buzzkill. This morning when he got up, Kiko said to himself: tonight I’m gonna be chilled. He needs to rest, eat Japanese, catch a movie, sleep it off. He’d forgotten he was having a party at his place—he could have canceled, but that would have taken more effort than letting things ride. Claudia shows up. She’s in Paris doing a cover for Vogue. He likes being surrounded by people who are successful at what they do. They radiate positive energy. She’s brought some of her girlfriends from the photo shoot. Supermodels are so last decade. Has-beens. They’re a dime-a-dozen. Disposable. Even a dog can snag a catwalk model and get her into bed. He finds this thought amusing and immediately tweets it. He’s in a Twitter war with Jé, who’s in Shanghai—what time is it there, what is he doing posting at this hour: “I’m studying the green of my vomit,” with twitpic evidence. Sick. Who knows what the fuck he’s doing over there. Other than making himself sick. Ever since the last Bond movie, Kiko’s been planning to go to Shanghai. Not for work—he wants to have time to get out of the hotel. Get a feel for the city. But he doesn’t have the time. Story of his life. You spend your time working your ass off to earn serious cash, but to spend it you need some sort of work-life balance. And in his line of work, there’s no such thing. His job is speed. People outside the business don’t understand. They think he analyzes companies, but he’s a sprinter. He reacts in a hundredth of a second, moves at the speed of the technology. Black holes. A stock market crash lasts a second and a half. Generating billions in profits. Or losses. And it’s all down to you. It’s hyper-instability. No time to touch ground, he’s attuned to the wavelengths of algorithmic trading. He responds to an underground rhythm ordinary mortals cannot hear. Makes pivotal decisions at the speed of sound. We’re talking billions, we’re talking nanoseconds. He is constantly alert, an exceptional warrior. Britney Spears, “Work Bitch.” Subutex is his bro, the guy can read his thoughts, he knows what to spin to get people dancing. Gym workout music.

His job is speed. People outside the business don’t understand. They think he analyzes companies, but he’s a sprinter. He reacts in a hundredth of a second, moves at the speed of the technology.

Jérémy is pestering Marcia to cut his hair right now. Kiko can’t stand the guy anymore. He used to be funny and charming. Used to be his best bro. These days, he’s pathetic. They’ve known each other since they were kids. But Jérémy never realizes when he’s not wanted. He outstays his welcome. He’s broke, his father cut off his allowance when he found out how much he was putting up his nose. Kiko managed to get himself fired from the board of directors, it had to be done. He trashed the CEO’s office, just picked up a chair and started swinging. At the time it made them all laugh. But afterward, well . . . It was pretty loserish behavior. You’ve gotta be able to draw the line. Keep the wild and wasted shtick for the nighttime. Daytime, you have to keep your nose clean and not make waves. The guy pisses him off. Ever since last summer when Jérémy insisted on coming to Calvi on the Rocks. Turned up without a fucking cent. Leeching off everyone. Embarrassing. Kiko had made it clear that there were ten of them staying in the house and it wasn’t exactly an Olympic pool either. But he showed up anyway. No respect. This is one thing Kiko cannot abide. If you can’t handle your drugs, go into rehab. For years, they were inseparable, they agreed on everything. But it’s over now. Jérémy has lost his touch. These days, he is part of the crowd Kiko dismisses as roadkill—he is not about to feel guilty for being a killer. He knows not everyone is as lucky as he is. Always hustling, always on the move. Most of the people he knows are already past it. It’s a long game, a tough game. They shoot horses don’t they, Kiko would be the last man standing on the dance floor. For Jérémy, it’s game over. His father won’t let him fall through the cracks, but he’s finished. His brain probably looks like a wrinkled Chinese pot sticker. Fried and cold. He won’t climb back into the ring. Kiko is annoyed to see him drooling over Marcia— Marcia still makes him horny. Jesus fuck she makes him horny! Past her prime and not really his type. But she owns it. It’s something about the way she moves, she fucks with every breath. She reeks of sex. A real woman is one of the guys. He types this into Twitter and jabs “send.” He’s leaning over a bridge above a motorway. The tweets keep coming, Boule2Kriss is on this crazy riff about the “human Barbie,” some girl who’s had surgery so she could look like a doll. He’s coming out with some sleazy porn shit. Depeche Mode—this Vernon guy is a genius. You never know what the next segue will be, but he’s spinning a blinding set. He’s got BPM burned onto his cortex. The party cranks up another gear, you can feel it, it’s buzzing, buzzing, buzzing. Janet Jackson, “All Nite.” There’s a lot of sucky-fucky going on in the corners, it’s cosmic and it’s crass, just the way he likes it. Chicks can be dry when they’re blitzed on gutter glitter, so mind those foreskins, boys. He tweets this. Too bad for the guys who’ve been cut and whose pricks can’t feel anything. He could have any girl in this room tonight. That’s why they’re here, just seeing the size of the apartment gets them wet and they’re gagging to suck off any guy who can afford it. He can see everything. He is a surface, attentive and alert. It’s the yayo, but it’s not just that—his mind is a single, giant interchange. Like downtown Tokyo. Information courses through him; he classifies. He spends all day simultaneously watching eight monitors while barking orders down the phone. He is multiple. Through training, his brain works a hundred times faster than that of some bumbling CEO. The average bank manager is like some guy scaling a mountain on the back of a donkey while he is riding a rocket—three times around the world every day, and his giant strides don’t just take him around the world from market to market, they take him to its core—sifting information, finding points that match, connecting them. Transmitter–receiver. Intergalactic sorting office. Plugged into world time. In a Sicilian village or an Indian megalopolis, in the frozen tundra or the Amazon rainforest, everywhere functions on Market time. Our advantage is speed, ubiquity is our gift. The meteor moves too fast for anyone to alter its trajectory, it’s all about intuition. Kiko can sense time, he is the big hand on the watch. In global time. He is the swiftest, the strongest. It’s nothing to do with the drugs. He is in control. A quick bump first thing in the morning and he’s off and running, no more hits until he takes a break at two p.m.—his first line. He is in control, during the day he takes only what he needs to keep riding the gnarly wave. He never spins out. He is an exceptional surfer. He’s worth this apartment, he’s worth all those honeys shaking their asses in the living room, he’s worth the drugs. He’s worth the Berlutis. He’s a fucking wolf. His concentric part is rising—anyone would give anything to be in his shoes. Shit! A Trentemøller remix of Presley—at this precise moment, it’s the perfect piece of mixology. It’s savage, the babes love it, they can swivel their hips. This guy is a genius. Kiko loves him. They are kindred spirits: in his business, Kiko is a virtuoso—he rides the comet, the comet is his own body. He hears the blood pumping in his temples, the sound of his blood, throbbing, throbbing, it’s good. Powerful. Even the people who pretend to be modest do it because they’re bitter, because they can’t be like him. If they don’t get to taste the soup, they try to spit in it, but if someone passed them the bowl they’d change their tune. No one likes a loser. He nearly tossed that old bastard Vernon out on his ass— it’s one of his pet hates, when people bring someone around who has no business setting foot in his place. He nearly lost his shit when Gaëlle showed up with this fucking tramp, with his piss-poor excuse about not having his gear—he had to lend the guy a T-shirt. Kiko had glared at Gaëlle but she shot him that look that always gets to him, the look of an old hand who knows what she’s doing. And she was right. The guy is sick. He may not have looked like much standing in the living room in the cold light of day, but bent over his playlists right now, the look almost works. He hardly moves—tough guys don’t dance— but he’s at one with the music. The fucker does a 180-degree swerve into music that’s hot and kitsch, and it works. Kiko glances at the track on iTunes, Candi Staton “I’d Rather Be an Old Man’s Sweetheart” how the fuck did he have the balls to spin this now? Exactly the right tune, just the thing to get the babes warmed up despite the coke. Great night, never met a guy like this. How did a guy like you end up poor, how come you’re still a filthy bum. The guy probably grew up eating peanuts off paper plates, a life fueled by frozen crêpes and meat pumped full of antibiotics. The cultural habits of the poor make Kiko want to puke. He imagines being reduced to such a life—over-salted food public transport taking home less than €5,000 a month and buying clothes in a shopping mall. Taking commercial flights and having to wait around in airports sitting on hard seats with nothing to drink no newspapers being treated like shit and having to travel in steerage, being a second-class scumbag, knees jammed against your chin, neighbor’s elbows digging into your ribs. Screwing aging cellulite-riddled meat. Finishing the workweek and having to do the housework and the shopping. Checking the prices of things to see if you can afford them. Kiko couldn’t live like that, he would rob a bank, put a bullet in his head, he would find a solution. He would not put up with it. The fact that they do means that they deserve it. Guys like him could not live like that. What have the rich got that the poor have not? They’re not content with what they’re given. Guys like him never act like slaves. He stands on his own two feet, come what may—he would rather die on his feet than kneel. People who allow themselves to be subjugated deserve to be subjugated. This is war. He is a mercenary. When you fall on the front lines, you don’t run crying to someone. You’re here to fight. Three days ago when Kerviel was asked in an interview on TV, “Did you realize what you were doing when you were speculating on commodities?”—the kind of bullshit question that comes from a guy who doesn’t realize that that’s the job—Kiko fell over laughing. Do you really think we have time to inspect our own asshole to check whether it’s clean. Who is the strongest. The fastest. That’s the only question. As soon as you know the answer, you go for it. You’ve got guys bellyaching about the markets, they bring Kerviel on and they want him to say it was all his fault. Why don’t you ask the real questions: Who sells these shows? They are the masters of the universe. Ask yourself what Google is doing instead of bleating that you don’t understand the industry. Twelve trains late, gentlemen. Who comes up with the algorithms, that’s the only important question. The little people worry about the rise of the far right. That won’t change the markets. Whether it’s the far right or anyone else, the markets will barely notice. There is no going back. These people are still living in the ’30s. Kiko is connected to the universal flux, the pure source of power, money may thrash, it shies, it rears, but Kiko stays in the saddle. Would anyone think to ask a bomber pilot to examine his conscience? People are still worrying about threats to education and social security. Retards. Do the unemployed need to read in their free time? The old world is done and dusted. Why bother educating people who are surplus to the job market? The next time the peoples of Europe are called upon, it will be for war. You don’t need to learn about literature and math to fight. Now there’s something that could kick-start the economy. A war. But well-read welfare scroungers—honestly, what a ridiculous notion. People think that on the trading floor we give a shit about protest movements—do they really believe that it makes a trader’s heart bleed to see a bunch of guys without the cash to buy bread? Life’s always been like this. It’s hard. It’s war. When Kerviel crashes and burns, no one rushes to defend him. When it comes to Kiko’s turn—he will face it alone. He is a mercenary, he knows he can count on no one. In a war you have to win. To survive. To have the proper tools. The right algorithm. The rest is poetry. Empty promises. Of course there is the thrill. Yo, shithead, you think I don’t get a hard-on for a bonus trailing five zeros? If he walked over to Subutex and said, you know today I added hundreds of thousands of euros to my capital, he’d know that made him hard, right? He’s got a full-on robot chubby. He is a bull in the ring, he fights. He sees people who’ve retired at forty. Palaces, big cars, and high-class hookers, they move to countries where no one gives a shit about human rights, where people are progressive, where they don’t hassle you for income tax. He’s never seen one of them with tears in his eye because little black bamboula hasn’t got enough to eat. Try doing what I do, you’ll see. I hedge, I speculate, I double, I anticipate, I short. Always on the alert. Bad news for the people of France: the party’s over. Move along, there’s nothing to see here. We’ve sold off the fridges the laptops and now we’re restocking to fuck off and sell elsewhere. And you’ll do what? Apart from complaining, what are you going to do? Kill each other? Good idea. We’ve got arms to trade. His countrymen are dumb, ungrateful, arrogant assholes. They take to the streets shouting bullshit slogans and thinking they’re all that. They’re nothing. Up where we are, we don’t even hear. Not a whisper reaches our ears. It’s all done and dusted. It’s over. Wave your little pamphlets. We can’t even hear you.

He needs to get to bed early tonight. One more line, one last drink, and then beddy-byes. Albert King. “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home.” Vernon is shit hot. Kiko yells D.J. REVOLVER IN DA HOUSE. He knows it’s lame but he doesn’t give a shit, this is his place he’ll trip how he likes. It’s wild, the guy’s got like a sixth sense. He’s at the controls and the spaceship is about to lift off. It’s tight, the people the bodies the lights the sounds— it’s too tight. He goes over and grabs Vernon’s shoulder. Fuck, dude, props on the set, it’s awesome, the sound is banging. You’re a badass motherfucker. The baddest. You got everything you need in your room? Just ask, okay? Want me to hook you up with a babe? I’ve had, like, a million DJs here and maybe they’ve got a style but you . . . you’re one savage mofo. Look at them bitches, look what you’re doing to them, any minute now the whole room will be one big fucking orgy. Actually, Kiko decides he likes the guy’s face. He’s not shy, he’s mysterious. At first sight, he assumed Vernon was a loner. He hates that. Motherfuckers are savage or at the very least they’re loudmouths. They’re up for anything. Shyness is a sign of subterfuge. Of middle-class hipsters. The fucktards who think they’re someone. Timidity is the sign of neurosis, neurosis is the sign of treachery. You’ve got to be careful who you let in if you want the atmosphere to stay fluid. You have to filter. An apartment is like a country. You’ve got to keep out the undesirables, you’ve got to be ruthless, only let in people who know how to party. I’m paying so I get to choose. This Vernon guy is brooding and mysterious, ever since he started spinning the tunes he’s been transfigured. An artist. He’s an artist. It’s always useful to have a couple around. Tonight, for example, he’s short of actresses. They always add a little something. Not actresses of the TV. They’re boring. They’re depressing. They drag you down. Like stand-up comedians. “So weit wie noch nie”—old school techno. Everyone’s up, everybody’s pumping, it’s like trance. Truly, this guy’s got mad skills. It’s something you can’t put your finger on, but when a DJ brings a little soul, everyone senses it. Just when Kiko was about to hit the sack, the perfect tune. There’s been a dark-haired girl circling him for a while now, she thinks he hasn’t seen her as she gets more and more obvious. Give it a few minutes, she’ll be dancing naked in front of him, desperately trying to make eye contact. Her nose is so skinny he wonders how she can get coke up there without it disintegrating on the spot. Maybe it’s a prosthesis, maybe before she sucks him off, she’ll take off the nose and show him her zombie face. Shake that body, baby, shake it. I’ll take care of you. Tonight I’m not going to fuck you, I’m too shattered, but I’ll take you to bed. We’ll fall asleep next to each other. Biancha is dancing with her eyes closed, Marcia is pressed against her back. A little lesbian performance, go on give us some girl-on-girl action, set this room ablaze. It’s hell in here. Tribal, tribal. I love it. He takes the dark-haired girl by the hand. She looks like she’s sixteen. I’m going to fall asleep with two fingers in that shaved little pussy of yours, but I’m not going to fuck you, I don’t have the energy, maybe you could blow me, but I don’t think I can even manage to come. In his apartment, porn is what happens in the bed. He’s a god. His bedroom is far enough from the living room that he can leave the others to amuse themselves. He is a prince. He doesn’t say goodnight, he beckons for the girl to come with him and she complies. They’re all the same, and the ones who think they’re too good to come when he whistles can go fuck themselves, there’s always some girl shrewd enough to want to keep him warm. Because tomorrow, who knows, maybe I’ll remember you, maybe well enough to give you a little present. It all depends on you, on how good you are.

To survive. To have the proper tools. The right algorithm. The rest is poetry. Empty promises.

Virginie Despentes is a writer and filmmaker. She worked in an independent record store in the early ’90s, was a sex worker, and published her first novel, Baise Moi, when she was twenty-three. She adapted the novel for the screen in 2000, codirecting with the porn star Coralie Trinh Thi. Upon release, it became the first film to be banned in France in twenty-eight years. Despentes is the author of more than fifteen other works, including Apocalypse Baby, Bye Bye Blondie, Pretty Things, and the essay collection King Kong Theory.

Frank Wynne has translated the work of many authors including Michel Houellebecq, Boualem Sansal, Frédéric Beigbeder, and the late Ivoirian novelist Ahmadou Kourouma. He won the International IMPAC Literary Award with Houellebecq for The Elementary Particles.