Contagion

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‘Their skin had touched and it was worth all the troubles in the world.’

Apocalypse Baby (Serpent’s Tail, 2013) is Virginie Despentes’ sixth novel. Originally published in 2010, it’s been translated from the French by Sian Reynolds. Touching on a series of key contemporary concerns, the novel negotiates a truncated, atrophied, but nevertheless caressive and affective, language of touch as a grounding for its exploration of contemporary violence, an exploration in a fictional language mediated by frequent allusions to cinematic style and gothic tropes (the novel is prefaced by a quote from Beatriz Preciado’s Testo Junkie). These referential sets coalesce into different configurations of contemporary female experience (or, for some readers, cliches of femininity) as the text develops. One character raises her eyes, ‘quite slowly, a very elegant movement, like in a black and white film’; another experiences a ‘burning’ face, ‘her fine skin irritated and painful’ after a few nights with her new male partner (the sex of partners is important here); a central character has shockingly ‘metamorphic’ abilities in which she becomes violently other to herself, a symbol of the social violence in which she’s deeply implicated:  ‘she could be in a horror film’, we’re told, ‘just like she is, no need for special effects, torn-off limbs, nothing’. After one such moment, the same character tells Valentine, the teenaged victim-perpetrator around whom the plot revolves, ‘No hard feelings. Just a little injection of reality. Just like when a vampire bites an innocent victim. Crunch! It’s over.’

Heterosexual sex is at one point described as a kind of friction, an affectless contactual / contractual performance: ‘He rubbed the parts of his body he thought relevant up against her, giving the impression of taking advantage of what she let him do.’ Moments of violence are marked by sharp, unexpected contact, tiny mises-en-abyme of the entire conceit of the plot: ‘Wallop! Not an ordinary slap with the flat of the hand, a brutal blow, using the edge of her palm, and the deaths-head ring makes a long red scratch on his cheek. I didn’t see it coming. I don’t think he did, either.’

As might be expected from the author of Baise-Moi, the insistent trope of contact – sexual, intimate, and violent – mutates, just as caressing sometimes mutates into beating and stroking into striking, as the narrative progresses to develop an abiding preoccupation with some of the ‘failures’ of contact that orchestrate and interrupt social relations in the age of ‘social’ media. Apocalypse Baby, generically a crime novel, examines how an entire civilisation becomes contaminated by the ‘corruption’ (moral, political, ideological, religious – the novel wants them all) of certain vulnerable and susceptible but (crucial ambiguity) dangerously complicit and control-needy elements in a society. In a dramatically telescoped final section (which, along with some of the character-narratives earlier on, is one of the more effective parts of the novel), it considers how all aspects of the social might become disastrously contaminated by the paranoid narratives and their consequent technological enforcements that society nurtures.

All these tropes effect a general sense that the novel’s superficial concern with the tactile, with the effects of touching and of (making, losing, re-establishing, sustaining) contact between characters, masks its inability to resist the fictional allure of a deeper set of anxieties, about not simply touching, but the consequences of the touch – the risk of contamination. In this anxiety, commonplace social niceties become fraught with ambiguities that divide the generations (a division that’s another key theme here): the narrator wonders, offered a handshake by her collaborator, ‘whether she thinks I’m going to give her some infectious disease or whether at her age she doesn’t know that these days between girls we kiss.’

‘Fear of contagion’ becomes the central concern and structuring metaphor, as the novel sketches a violently dystopian future state response to the viral threat of terrorism, clearly (too transparently: ‘the Ground Zero of the City of Light’ doesn’t reimagine Paris as the new locus of terrorist outrage so much as fail to imagine whatever the next form of terrorist outrage will be – one of several false notes in the novel) reading off the ‘War on Terror’ and its sickening transformations of notions of freedom, democracy, liberty, equality, fraternity. And this ‘fear of contagion’ becomes the ‘contagion of fear’, a web-like process of disastrously ramifying interconnections – the new and menacing neoliberal Real that would enmesh us all – that the detective-genre structure of Apocalypse Baby mobilises. Fredric Jameson argues that the genre enables the detective to operate as social geographer, cognitively mapping social realms otherwise inaccessible to the reader in order, ultimately, to reassure us that some kind of order (the order, perhaps, that we remember from ‘not so long ago’) exists, even if Law is necessary to enforce it. Despentes’ detectives, driven more by individual desires than by the logics of plot resolution, work as versions of us all; the ‘contagion of fear’ embeds us all as objects of impersonal power, seeking escape both in (the novel’s last words) ‘a story I can be satisfied with’ – in the satisfaction of personal desire – and in the potential reassurance of the (nevertheless infectious) nostalgia evoked by its opening clause: ‘Not so long ago …’.

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