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Friday, December 11, 2015

=Book recently read: Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes

Lucie Toledo is a dispirited private investigator whose just not that into her profession. Actually, "private investigator" is an overly romantic description of what her job really entails. Lucie spends her days sitting in a cafe nibbling croissants while keeping an eye on a troubled teenager at the behest of the girl's concerned father and grandmother. Their concern is well-warranted when Valentine slips from the corner of Lucie's bored eye and vanishes.

Enter the Hyena. An oversexed, rage-a-holic lesbian with a bad attitude who Lucie reluctantly recruits to help her on what is now an increasingly ominous missing persons case. Whereas Lucie is just faking her way through the business, The Hyena—no one knows her true name—is the real deal with a reputation for over-the-top mayhem. She scares the shit even out of hardcase shitheads. She's a professional people-hunter, debt-collector, equalizer, bone breaker, spy—actually no one knows exactly what she is and you still don't know exactly what she is by the end of this novel. She's also one very horny dyke who puts the wolf-eye on just about anything sans testicles—except Lucie.

The French do practically everything better than we do it here in the United States and thriller writing is no exception. In Virginie Despentes' hands, simple genre fare becomes more than just entertainment & testosterone-laced wet dreams of patriotic gore; it's a vehicle to discuss a whole range of serious contemporary topics. Terrorism, gender, revolution, politics, economic inequality, racism, censorship, government surveillance, suspension of legal rights justified by "national security"…Despentes works them all into a narrative that chugs along in a fairly breezy, pleasantly diverting fashion until things suddenly swerve down a very dark alley & conclude apocalyptically with one unforgettable and perversely explosive event.

Heterosexuality is as natural as the electric fence they put around a field of cows. From now on, big girl, welcome to the wide open spaces.

Along the way, the uptight, straitlaced Lucie discovers the joys of lesbian sex. Well, I could see that coming several miles away. Still, it was satisfyingly, if a bit cornily, apropos, especially so when we learn of Lucie's ultimate fate. Sexuality is such a limitless source of energy and diversity that it's important that the State control it for the "good" of society, that is to say, for its own stability and preservation. Sex, unbound from convention, like drugs, awakens far too much individuality and creativity to make control of a population possible—even conceivable. Therefore its careful regulation by custom, taboo, law, religion, and those old standbys—shame and guilt. Homosexuality is a revolutionary blow against the heterosexual hegemony of the State. It's a form of erotic terrorism that crosses borders at will, but not the only form, thank goodness, since the State is currently trying to co-opt and tame homosexuality, i.e. "normalize" it. Sexual diversity is rightly feared by the right, by religious conservatives of every stripe and spot as well as those currently holding the reins of power. All erotic subcultures are terrorist cells—every outlaw orgasm is an explosion shaking the foundations of the StateU.S. quo.

These kinds of ideas are implicit in "Apocalypse Baby" and that makes this novel infinitely more engaging than the ordinary thriller, which more often than not, is devoid of ideas altogether.

My only real qualm about "Apocalypse Baby" was the The Hyena herself. She's  played up as being so scary-violent and borderline psychopathic but she turns out to be just too likable & sympathetic a character to warrant her reputation as a bad-ass. Not quite the cliche of the tough bull-dyke  teddy-bear with the heart of gold…but close enough. It's as if Despentes had been afraid to make The Hyena as stone-cold bad as she was supposed to be. Speaking for myself, I would have preferred her to be a lot less cuddly. But what can I say? That's me. I like my edgy, ultra-scary, prone-to-violence-at-any-time butch-types to stay in character—at least in fantasy. Its just hotter that way. The Hyena's inner mushiness and  conventional humanity seemed to me a disappointing compromise from a writer who otherwise usually delivers on her reputation as uncompromising. A capitulation to commercial considerations, perhaps?

Still, you have to congratulate Despentes for uncompromisingly misanthropic observations likes this one: 

Children are the authorized vectors of their parents' anti-social behavior. The adults roll their eyes, pretend to be unable to cope with the destructive vitality of their little ones, but it's easy to see they're happy to be able to get on everyone else's tits with impunity via their progeny. What hatred of the world could have driven them to duplicate themselves repeatedly?

I have to admit, I never thought about the urge to procreate in these terms. Mainly I figured it was vanity, stupidity, convention, or the surrender to a perfidious biological determinism that works on the psyche unless it is actively opposed by a cold and unrelenting application of reason that led people to voluntarily multiply and extend the misery of mortality among other mortals beyond themselves. I never considered child-bearing as rage and revenge against the world! The womb as sleeper cell, the infant as terrorist preparing his or her entry into the world as revolutionary, set to overthrow the old order. Aieee! Dammit, that's why I've always loved French literature the best. You discover heretofore unsuspected levels of human perversity all the time :)

Apocalypse Baby is definitely a book worth checking out. For that matter, check out Despentes' earlier novel Baise-Moi. It was even better, as I recall it, because it was utterly uncompromising—kind of a cross between Thelma & Louise and Natural Born Killers. In any event, Apocalypse Baby was a bracing intellectual mouthwash after the bad taste left by Miranda July's putrid, if half-read "The Last Bad Man."

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