‘Volatile’ isn’t a strong enough adjective for Gloria, the protagonist of Virginie Despentes’ novel, Bye Bye Blondie. This post-punk love story shocks and devastates with its disquieting exploration of personhood, womanhood, and human connection through Gloria’s manic gaze.
We meet Gloria in her middle age, newly homeless after the latest in a string of exes becomes fed up with her bottomless capacity for anger and violent outbursts. She begins making her way to the local bar. She’d smashed her phone against a wall in her final fight with her ex, but even if she had some change to call a friend for help, she realizes there are very few left willing to put up with her. But even in these first pages of the novel, her despair doesn’t quite seem isolated. She wanders her dreary town, passing by posters for vapid films and the sterile bubblegum storefronts of international chains. Her ferocity takes on the flavor of rebellion in the context of the anaesthetized materialism of her surroundings.
Gloria stops, rain-soaked, in the middle of a crosswalk, searching out a fight. Suddenly her very first lover, Eric, now a major TV show host, gets out of one of the waiting cars and approaches her there in the middle of the wet street. This encounter catalyzes the rest of the novel’s action. He wants to see her. And sleep with her. And take her to fancy restaurants and industry parties. And build a life with her.
The third-person narrator relates, flashback style, their brief and youthful affair, from its initiation in a psych ward to, to their wanderings through France as teenage punks in the 80s, to the moment that abruptly tore them from each other’s lives.
Though Eric has moved on from the self-destructive anger of his younger years and accepted the numbing comforts of money, society, expectations, and gainful employment, Gloria never has. And often, as we experience Eric’s life in Paris through Gloria’s eyes, we’re left wondering who’s made the better choice. Is Gloria’s earnest refusal to accept life’s banality, to be well in an unwell society, somehow preferable to Eric’s drugs, fancy things, and false friends?
Gloria gets her first taste of what it may be like to have a stake in the material world when she writes a movie script about their love affair. Her attachment to the success of her creation causes her to put up with much indignity from the producer. But she eventually (and characteristically) snaps, and her downward spiral soon wears on Eric. She’s used to causing her own pain, and others’. But this is something new.
“Seeing him so destroyed, so battered, and his eyes in torment because, after giving all his loving to a woman, he can’t make her happy, she is wounded to the core at having done this to him. In return. Giving all her loving to a man and only managing to make him end up groaning and rolling on the floor.”
There is no happy ending. There’s barely an ending at all, just another eye in Gloria’s never-ending storm. With all the pain she causes herself and others, she’s a remarkably relatable character, a testament to the skill of Despentes and translator Sian Reynolds, who renders the French novel into an energetic and urbane English.
In short, Bye Bye Blondie is a riveting, colorful, unique story. It is imbued with the passionate discontent of the punk movement, thought to be dead, but clearly still bubbling under our collective surface. The novel shakes you up, begging you to question the complacence of comfort and the structures of privilege that underlie it. Formidable, certainly, but there is still, if not salvation, at least some respite found in genuine and unconditional human connection.
Lindsay Semel is an Assistant Director of Asymptote for Educators, a new initiative that provides resources for educators who’d like to use Asymptote content in the classroom. She recently earned a BA in Comparative Literature and Arabic Language and Literature, and is pursuing a career in education. She also enjoys farming and yoga.
Read More on Women Writers:
- In Conversation with Translators Lulu Norman and Ros Schwartz
- Cooking Her Way to the Top: Chef Rossi on Feminism and Kosher Hot Dogs
- All Our True Stories: Feminist Language Diversity and Accessibility