Serpent's Tail £8.99

Review: Apocalypse Baby, By Virginie Despentes

There is no end to what's wrong with France

The French author Virginie Despentes is best known for her incendiary debut novel Baise-Moi, published in 1993 and adapted into a controversial film that Despentes wrote and directed herself.

This seventh novel shares some superficial similarities with Baise-Moi, revolving around two women on a road trip and featuring a fair amount of sex, but it is altogether a more ambitious piece of social commentary. While that commentary is acerbic and perceptive, and there is a refreshingly transgressive spirit to much of what goes on here, Apocalypse Baby is not without its structural and motivational faults.

Lucie Toledo is a pretty rubbish private detective based in Paris, hired to keep an eye on Valentine, a troublesome 15-year-old girl, by her hapless father and domineering grandmother. When she loses the girl, she is then tasked with tracking her down. Unfamiliar with missing person cases, she enlists the help of a formidable agent known only as the Hyena, an outrageous, funny, violent, predatory lesbian nutcase. So Lucie and the Hyena embark on a road trip, from Paris to Barcelona and back, in search of Valentine.

In fact, the missing girl element of the plot doesn't have a lot of energy behind it and tends to get forgotten for long swathes of the narrative. Despentes clearly has another focus here – French society itself. In between chapters narrated in the first person by Lucie, we get long, third-person chapters filled with detailed backstory about everyone that Valentine has come into contact with and left an impression on.

So we get the father Francois, a pathetic, vain, womanising novelist; Valentine's stepmother Claire, with two daughters of her own to worry about; her real mother Vanessa, a deeply self-centred gold-digger; and Yacine, Valentine's poor and angry young cousin. Despentes is scathing about all of them, and about the state of French society and politics in general, but she is also very funny, especially about the state of the French publishing industry.

But in the last quarter of the book, things really begin to fall apart. Firstly, we get a third person narrative from the Hyena, which fatally spoils her ineffable, mysterious craziness, then we get narratives from Valentine and from a Spanish nun called Elizabeth, neither of which is particularly convincing. Also, Lucie has a sudden, impetuous affair that seems more like a convenient commentary on sexual politics than a believable slice of lust.

But more important than all that, there is a plot development towards the end involving Valentine that I just didn't buy at all. I can't say any more without risking plot spoilers, but the motivation for her extreme actions seemed deeply unconvincing, and what was perhaps intended to wrap the disparate narrative threads together only served to highlight the book's ultimately disjointed nature.

Apocalypse Baby undoubtedly has a lot to say about modern France, and its depiction of the fraught nature of 21st-century living is assured and insightful. Sexual power, politics, literature, racism and violence all come under Despentes's withering gaze, but it felt to me as if the author had written herself into a corner before the end, and couldn't find a believable, coherent way out for her characters.

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering