September 2015

Nic Grosso


Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes, translated by Sian Reynolds

By the time I got around to starting this introduction, I had already spent days -- no, actually it's been weeks. It's been weeks already, turning over innumerable drafts of this review, trying to figure out again and again how to explain, how to say things just right. And then suddenly it hit me. I understood my problem. I was trying to compete with the book I was in the process of reviewing. In a few hundred words, I wanted to top this incredible novel -- an effort I knew was doomed to fail.

Very early on in Apocalypse Baby, I was struck with the unmistakable feeling of great literature. I was confronted with something that I had long been struggling to understand: What makes for a brilliant novel? What raises particular novels to such breathtaking heights? 

Now let me not drag this out. I will tell you simply. More than beautiful writing, which can only carry a book for so long, or a thrilling plot, which loses its heft after the first time through, great literature can be found in the acknowledgement and attempt to reveal the world that exists beyond the story. This is not to say the story incorporates every corner of society or all cultures and perspectives but instead leaves room to know that more exists. There is a world beyond the four corners of the book; a universe exists before the first page and after the last. 

If the story's protagonist wasn't conceived in the novel, part of her history is outside the scope of the book and the author is then responsible for this void, because who can deny the importance of the time and place a person was born, their familial relations and the home where they spent their formative years. All of these details stake a claim, all become their own blocks in the founding of a mind, in the formation of a worldview. Though this is not to say that every novel need to include every particular detail or even attempt for such encyclopedic or exhaustive measures, the novel must maintain and allow for all of these infinite features and memories to exist: all the meals a character has ever had, every stranger passed on the sidewalk, all of those fleeting daydreams, and even the handful of seemingly ordinary encounters that thirty years on a person can still recall with a vividness of something that had only just happened earlier this morning.

In Despentes's Apocalypse Baby, the reader feels this pulse beating, at times faint, then loud, heavy: a vein ready to pop. We are taken for a wild ride in search of a missing teenage girl with two private investigators, one a road-hardened veteran, the other a slacker looking to get from job to job with as little trouble as possible. Part road trip, part pulpy crime novel, this story crackles on the edge, capable of holding its own against any of the best summer blockbusters. And even with all of this, Despentes does not sacrifice her intellectual prowess. She does not sacrifice her sharp pen, painting stark yet honest portrayals of life in Paris and the wide variety of characters a person may cross throughout their day. And in the end the reader is left slack jawed, feeling the weight and scope of all the author confronts -- the beauty and the violence, the chaos of an infinity that exists just beyond our consciousness but affects us deeply nonetheless.

So if the message still hasn't rung clear, pick up your copy of Apocalypse Baby now -- everything else can wait!

Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes, translated by Sian Reynolds
The Feminist Press at CUNY
ISBN: 978-1558618916
336 pages

Nic Grosso is the founder of