Tag Archives: fame

Bye Bye Blondie: Virginie Despentes

I gave up on the film version of Baise-Moi based on the book from French author Virginie Despentes, but that didn’t stop me from trying, and loving the film  Les Jolies Choses, based on yet another (sadly, untranslated) book from the author.  It was the latter film I thought of as I read Bye Bye Blondie, the story of a tangled relationship floating on a sea of fame and affluence.

The book begins with a woman in her late 30s, Gloria, whose real name is Stéphanie, washed up, living on benefits in the town of Nancy. Gloria could be called local colour at the bar where she hangs out, drinking, and it’s to this bar she gravitates after yet another violent break-up. This time it’s with her now ex-boyfriend, Lucas, and in the aftermath of the fight, she realizes that “she could have killed him. It came that close: a centimeter, a second! She diced with tragedy. He’d have had to be just that bit less quick, agile, or strong than her.”

Bye Bye Blondie

Gloria’s whole life gravitates around the bar where she’s well known. One of her few remaining friends is Michel who is smitten with a woman,
“a château bottled bitch,” named Vanessa, and to Gloria’s dismay, this relationship may be serious. Gloria is very intolerant of other people–especially women, and yet she always expects others to accept her aggressive, destructive behaviour.

Back in the bar, she looks around for L’Est Républicain, the local paper, and sees it clutched in the pink false fingernails of the woman sitting at the bar. Classic slut. Another regular. Always lots of makeup, come-hither eyes. She’s fat, dark-haired, no great looker, but not letting on she knows that.

Of course with a character like Gloria, you have to ask where things went wrong. How did she get to this point, “addicted to pointless anger,” and the first half of the book explores those questions with the result it’s obvious that middle-aged Gloria is not in a slump, no, she hasn’t moved beyond her adolescence. She’s a trainwreck, but she’s at the age that her actions can still impress those younger than her. Since her teenage years, obessive-compulsive Gloria has enjoyed throwing fits. To her they are an effective tool:

What she doesn’t tell him is how much of a kick she gets these days out of being aggressive. How much she loves the moment when everything tips over, when the other person is caught off balance and you have to go on, attacking, screaming, and seeing his fear. That’s the moment she likes. The pleasure she gets from it is dirty, degrading, filling her with shame-a filthy and superpowerful pleasure.

Never really able to settle on her own identity, in the 80s, she latched onto the Punk rock scene. But that’s not mentioning her stay at a mental hospital where she met the love of her life, Eric, a young man from a wealthy home, who, in the years following his break-up with Gloria, has become a successful television personality.

Blurbs about the book mention the inherent violence in heterosexual relationships, and while that’s not an arguable point when discussing this author’s work, other pertinent themes include the issues of class differences, status, and fame. The very things that attract us to someone in the first place are quite often the same things that guarantee doom.

I loved Gloria; I loved her ability to self destruct and to rise from the ashes. She’s funny, intelligent, and yet as her own worst enemy, she continually launches herself into a never-ending cycle of aggression. To Eric, locked into the world of the rich and famous, Gloria is a breath of fresh air, so he takes her to Paris and is “delighted to see the way she gets up people’s noses.” Gloria gets used to living in Eric’s world, and the question is: how long can she behave before creating another “nuclear disaster?”

There are many memorable scenes to carry away from this book. In one scene, Gloria is questioned by an “ancient” male psychiatrist who dislikes Gloria’s dyed red hair. He decides she’s “refusing to be a woman,” and locks her up.

And in another scene she’s shopping in Paris with Eric.

She waits in front of the luxury delicatessen, Fauchon’s, smoking a cigarette. She looks people up and down as they go in, actively detesting them. Elderly dyed-blondes, all twig-slim with ridiculous little dogs, hordes of Japanese women, young anorexic girls with strained faces, old ladies with white hair and Hermès scarves. The clichés aren’t misleading: rich people are just like you’d imagine them, weird, ugly and pleased with themselves. They can spot each other at a glance. Even when one of them dresses down, they keep something about them that says to their equals, “I’m one of us.”

She waits for him opposite Colette’s smoking another cigarette.

“Come in with me, don’t be silly.”

“I tell you it would give me conniptions.”

“You look like a horse stamping its foot outside. You’re scaring everyone.”

She wants to run between the aisles waving her hands in the air and screaming, pushing people over into the displays. Breaking all the glass, the mirrors, the windows. Punching the old hags in the face, kicking the salesgirls, jumping up and down on the fashion victims, smashing the balls of the bouncers.”

But my favourite scene has to be Gloria, stuck in long line at the post office. There’s annoying children, a demented old lady in a dressing gown, and a disgruntled customer:

A woman complains that there’s always a line at the post office. Gloria never at a loss for something to say, looks her up and down and retorts: “perhaps that’s because you only come here at busy times, you silly bitch.”

Gloria may be a trainwreck but she’s a disinhibited one, and it’s hard to disagree with some of her outspokenness, and while Gloria seems hell-bent on destroying conventional society and all of her relationships at the cost of her own comfort, there’s a tiny voice off on the sidelines that whispers we hope she can change her cycle of self-destructiveness but still remain true to herself.

We don’t get too close to the secondary characters in Gloria’s life, nonetheless there’s plenty to entertain here–the pub customers, life at the mental hospital, and parties full of the unhappy wives of rich, “repulsive pigs.” I would love to see the film version…

Translated by Siân Reynolds

Review copy.

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Little Known Facts by Christine Sneed

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a film fan, and so it’s really no surprise that I’d be interested in Christine Sneed’s excellent debut novel, Little Known Factsa book I read in two sittings. Dynamic yet aging film star/director Renn Ivins is at the centre of the book and with each chapter told by various people in Renn’s life, a complex picture emerges of a talented, enormously successful, fabulously wealthy man, yet who, as ex-wife #1, Lucy states is “quite capable of rationalizing any decision he makes that involves his penis.” Through these chapters, both 1st and 3rd person narrative, we see Renn through the eyes of a range of people: his resentful, trust fund son, Will, whose bitterness towards his father hobbles his ability to move on, Renn’s daughter, Anna who’s on her last year of med. school at UCLA, a prop master who augments his income by stealing souvenirs, Renn’s two ex-wives, pediatrician Lucy and Melinda, who’s just written a tell-all memoir, Will’s girlfriend Danielle, and Renn’s girlfriend du jour, up-and-coming film star, Elise, a girl young enough to be his daughter.

little known factsBy presenting these alternate voices, author Christine Sneed not only adds multiple layers to this tale of family relationships tainted with fame, absence, and infidelity but she also infuses a thread of sympathy for her characters–no small feat since we are talking about extremely wealthy people who can more or less do what they want with their time and money. Will, for example, has a chain of pathetic attempts to work in his patchy resume, but with a posh home paid for out of his trust fund money, he has no incentive to get out of bed in the morning. Obviously, there’s no sympathy to be had from this reader for Will’s inertia dilemma, but the situation raises the question: did Renn, who felt guilty about dumping his family and moving on, do his children any favours setting them up with trust funds? It’s also, through Will, we get more than an idea of what it is like to live under the suffocating cloud of a parent’s fame.  All of his life, Will has felt insignificant next to his popular film-star father and has painfully discovered that people want to be friends with him only to get a taste of Tinsel town. Even Will’s girlfriend, Danielle secretly fancies Renn and feel “lightheaded” at the prospect of meeting this charismatic man again:

Objectively, the father, despite being twice his son’s age, is the more desirable man. Along with the money and the fame, it is his confidence, his stature, his sheer Renn Ivins-ness that draws people to him. He is his own thriving industry, a true celebrity, with his metal star already embedded in the famous sidewalk a few miles away. How many women have offered themselves to him over the years? How many women, the world over, believe themselves to be in love with him at that very moment?

Renn’s relationship with his son is already an emotional minefield when he asks Will to fly to New Orleans and take over the job of personal assistant on the set of Renn’s latest film, Bourbon at Dusk. Once at the mercy of his father’s orders and whims, Will becomes incredibly attracted to his father’s new girlfriend and leading lady, Elise, but is the attraction genuine or is it fueled by competitiveness?

With the story told by several voices, there are some time gaps in the narrative, and sometimes a chapter picks up some months later after major developments have occurred. With the multiple narratives and their varied voices, the author keeps the supple story moving in this page-turner that questions the price of fame and power. With the exception of his daughter Anna, a young woman who appears to have her life together, all the people in Renn’s life seem to suffer from knowing him, and none of Renn’s relationships are straight-forward. Renn believes in giving at least 15% of his money back to charity, and is capable of great generosity at several points in the novel, but in spite of his financial open-handedness,  Renn never really gives himself completely in a relationship. He’s not even on loan. It would be more accurate to say that he’s there for that moment, and nothing more. It’s almost as if Renn has acted in so many films, played so many roles, that there’s no centre to this man. He even keeps 2 sets of journals: one official journal to be published after his death, and the secret one called J2 in which he keeps a record of “shady things” that he’s “witnessed and done nothing about” or things he’s done he’s “regretted.” J2 is destroyed at the end of each year, and by the time Little Known Facts concludes, Renn has plenty of new material for J2.

Naturally both of Renn’s ex wives have a lot to say about him.  Lucy seems to have him pegged quite well and realizes that her marriage to Renn was doomed:

Our marriage began to exhaust me once people started to recognize him everywhere we went, after he became famous enough that paparazzi sometimes lurked outside the gate at the end of our driveway, but I was still not ready to give up. Still, it was clear that a marriage that lasts does not have the rest of the world pressing in on it; it does not have fanatics or floozies feverishly hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the principals, to touch his hand or whatever other part of him they can reach. A marriage that lasts does not feature one of the principals being paid to simulate sex on camera with someone young and very attractive, which is impossible for the other principal to get used to because this movie sex looks real and therefore it must feel real to the couple being filmed. A marriage that lasts does not have the aura of a siege, of a boat being rocked so hard I felt almost permanently ill. I knew I would lose him; I think I knew this very early on, but it wasn’t something I let myself say to anyone, and I tried never to say it to myself either.

Although Lucy realizes that her marriage was doomed by Renn’s fame, she admits to feelings of “regret or loneliness or anger over nothing that I can clearly articulate,” and still single, she compares other men unfavorably to Renn  Second wife, Melinda’s chapter is written in a pro-and con fashion–clearly the influence of years of expensive post-Renn therapy here, and it’s through this relationship that we see some heavy negatives about Renn balanced with some positive attributes. In one section, Melinda describes what Renn spends all his millions on, and that includes frequent romantic trips by private plane to his favourite restaurant in Napa. Rather hilariously, later on in the book, Renn flies Elise on that same trek–same destination, different woman. More than a bit tacky, and while Melinda reveals this small detail about her ex-, Renn seems oblivious to the fact that he is, in many ways, a predictable walking cliché. Here he is phenomenally wealthy, a man most men envy and most women drool over, and yet the reality is that he resorts to botox to fight aging, is romancing a woman young enough to be his daughter (and is any coincidence that she’s a hot new rising star?) and spends 100s of thousands on a psychic who ‘helps‘ with the major decisions in his life.

While the novel confirms rather than challenges some rather well-worn territory about wealth and fame (it sucks to be rich and famous) ultimately, Little Known Facts is a cleverly structured character study of the life of Renn Ivins: a man every male wants to be and every female wants to sleep with, and glaring exceptions to this are the family members and the exs he’s burned in the past who, of course, have an entirely different opinion of what Renn is really like. Little Known Facts could very literally mean J2–the secret journal Renn keeps as a way of expiating his sins or it could be the dirt the people in Renn’s life know about which is in stark contrast to the glitzy superstar image. The novel’s bottom line is the question: what is the cost of fame? And the author shows clearly and convincingly that it’s not just the star but their immediate circle that pays the price in the corrosive, corrupting culture of the movie biz. 

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Sneed Christine