Review by Tara Cheesman
Title: Pretty Things
Author: Virginie Despentes
Translator: Emma Ramadan
Publisher: Feminist Press (New York, 2018)
ISBN: 978 1 936932 27 6
Before we start, let’s get something straight: Virginie Despentes doesn’t give a shit what you think. She doesn’t care about your sexual hang-ups, trigger warnings, brands of feminism, gender constructs, or value systems. She’s a punk rock post-porn French feminist who gets her books blurbed by Annie Sprinkle. MollyCrabapple draws her covers. Her first novel, a rape-revenge fantasy story she wrote in her early twenties, is called Baise-Moi (Fuck Me).
Pretty Things is about twin sisters, Claudine and Pauline. Claudine moved to Paris to become famous. When we first meet her, she’s been at it for years without any success. She’s blond and beautiful and men love her.
As far as bitches went, she blew everyone else away. Her white jeans and tight blouse like a second skin, accepting his invitation to have a drink. What did she want from him, with her big tits, her flat stomach, her curved hips, and why? She had a mesmerizing ass, and she knew exactly which pants to put it in.
That’s her best friend, Nicolas, describing her. The first thing we learn about Nicolas is that his “eyes are very blue, he always looks like he’s laughing, about to do something mischievous.” The first thing he says is, “Fuck it’s nice out.” While we spend a lot of time with Nicolas and get to know him quite well as the story progresses, that’s as deep as he will ever get.
Claudine has no marketable skills or talents. Her only commodity is her body, which she uses like currency. “That was the fundamental difference between Claudine and the world. Like everyone else, she was calculated, egotistical, shit-talking, petty, jealous, a fraud, a liar. But unlike everyone else, she owned it—without cynicism, with a disarming nature that made her irreproachable.” Eventually, using her body gets Claudine a shot at a record deal. She convinces Pauline to record a demo and then come to Paris and switch places with her, because, unlike Claudine, Pauline can sing. Although the sisters detest one another, having spent their childhood competing for the affection and attention of their narcissistic father, Pauline agrees. Her boyfriend is in jail, and when he gets out, she wants them to go away together, somewhere tropical. For that to happen she needs money.
A straight line connects Despentes’ novels and her non-fiction. King Kong Theory, a book that’s part memoir and part feminist theory, includes an essay titled “Sleeping with the Enemy” which takes a hard and controversial stance on female prostitution. Despentes is very open about having worked as an occasional prostitute and explains that she doesn’t “make a cut-and-dried distinction between prostitution and legal, waged work, between prostitution and female seduction, between paid and exchanged sex, between what I lived then and what I saw in the years that followed.” Claudine doesn’t make a distinction either. Pauline does, until she becomes Claudine.
After Claudine kills herself, which happens fairly early on, Pauline fully assumes her identity. When we first meet Pauline she is, in Claudine’s words, “just grunge.” She doesn’t shave her legs, has no interest in her appearance, and has no respect for women who do. But she wants that album advance, so she spends weeks in her sister’s apartment practicing being Claudine, learning about her life and spending time with Nicolas (who grudgingly helps her, despite taking momentary offense at the ease with which Pauline accepts and moves past her sister’s death). When she emerges, she’s completely transformed.
Despentes believes that women can right the balance of power by taking ownership of their bodies and sexuality. She re-purposes her own experiences playing “the femininity game” for Pauline. The merging of these two emotionally damaged sisters into one confident individual is arguably a metaphor for the author’s own journey. In “Sleeping with the Enemy,” Despentes remembers “how perplexed I was, those first few months, when I caught a glimpse of myself in a shop window. It’s true that it wasn’t me anymore, that tall slut with heel-lengthened legs.” When Pauline goes out as Claudine for the first time, she too sees herself in a shop window. She observes “her own appearance. Between fright and amusement. She looks like other girls, not herself.” Pauline’s also unnerved by the effect she now has on men.
First she feels anger for Claudine: how could she reduce herself to being treated like this, flaunting herself and risking –
Then her anger shifts: Why can’t she just be left in peace?
As Claudine, Pauline is less Anna Nicole Smith and more Courtney Love. She sinks deeper and deeper into her sister’s world and, in the process, relinquishes pieces of her own personality to make space for Claudine’s. She is able to better understand the life her sister chose and is forced to face some hard truths about her own. Pauline eventually begins to respect who her sister was, something she never did while Claudine was alive. The cosmetics, clothes, and relationships Claudine bequeaths her become the tools which allow Pauline to attain her own, very specific, version of happily ever after.
Lots of sex, violence, and drugs keep what is essentially a third-wave feminist fable disguised as a story about sisters, forgiveness, and acceptance from spiraling into saccharine sentimentality. Despentes is steeped in Generation X youth culture. Pretty Things embraces the transgressive ethos of films like Reality Bites, Natural Born Killers, Kalifornia, and Trainspotting. Her characters are unapologetically shallow, self-absorbed, and amoral. Her writing, translated by the predictably brilliant Emma Ramadan, channels all the anger, mania and frenetic consumerism of the 1990s.
But for all its underlying messages and psychology, Claudine/Pauline’s story is an obscene, wild, entertaining ride, filled with characters oblivious of the precipice they’re sitting on. In 1999, France will adopt the Euro. Two years later, in New York City, the towers will fall. Fast forward: a series of coordinated terrorist attacks will be carried out in Paris, killing one hundred and thirty people. Global warming. Charlie Hebdo. Yellow jackets. It’s hard not to feel nostalgic for the time before the world caught fire. Or to wonder: what is Claudine doing right now?
Tara Cheesman is a freelance book critic, National Book Critics Circle member, and 2018-2019 Best Translated Book Award Fiction Judge. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Quarterly Conversation, Book Riot, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Rumpus and other online publications. She received her BFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter @booksexyreview and Instagram @taracheesman.