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.