I wrote Bye Bye Blondie when I was 34. The idea for the novel came out of my personal experience. I had a stepdaughter who occasionally lived with her dad and me. For the first time in my life, I was playing the “adult” role. She was, in my eyes, the cutest mini-punk you can imagine. I adored her. Through her, I learned how it feels as a parent figure when you hear a teenager sneaking out in the middle of the night, going to the party she can’t miss. That was brand new to me—and pretty interesting.
When she wasn’t with us, she lived in the US. One day, suddenly, she was sent against her will to a school in Utah where she was supposed to spend two years. It was a residential treatment center for “troubled” teenagers. She wrote to her dad begging him to get her out of that place. It took several months to make that happen.
She was 15 when it happened to her. And I was 15, myself, when my parents signed papers for me to be locked up in a psychiatric hospital against my will. Bye Bye Blondie began as a dialogue between the adult I was becoming and the wild teenager I once was. It amazed me to be in that mirror—to be confronted by what I had been through, but from a different perspective. Memories came back to me in waves and fueled me with sheer anger.
I’m sure now that I would never have been locked up if I had been born a boy. The antics that caused me to end up in a psych ward were not that feral. Similarly, I am convinced that my stepdaughter would never have been sent to a school for troubled kids had she been a boy. She was healthy, funny, full of energy. If she were male, everybody would have praised her boldness, strong libido, and sense of conquest. But girls… well, we have such a long history of being locked up in order to be taught how to behave.
I don’t think writing is a therapy. It does not cure. In fact, it reopens scars. It forces you to face facts you’d rather ignore. But writing does help build your own history. Having to use my own memories of the psychiatric hospital helped me to face the event anew. Being locked up as a teenager is like being bombed—many things are destroyed forever, beginning with any sense of security or trust. The betrayal digs a hole in your self; that hole will not be filled by writing upon it. But you can recognize what is missing, you can list casualties, and you can, it turns out, walk again in this mental minefield. Once you let bombs you’d been sidestepping explode, you discover they can’t kill anymore. This is what writing is, in my view: discovering you can survive the memory’s bombs. You’re not “cured,” but you learn how to live amid the ruins.
In the novel, Gloria carries some of my own scars, and much of my anger, as she deals with something that I might call “the emancipation complex.” Freeing yourself from your roots often comes with a strong feeling of guilt. You develop a certain amount of shame for leaving the circumstances that created you, which, in turn, produces anger. This rage might be correctly directed against those whose world you access, as you glean how they keep their privileges only by climbing on the backs of the precarious. But this anger—that seemed legitimate—gets out of control and burns everything you touch, anyone who comes near. This is the emancipation complex—you end up turning the rage against yourself, and destroying your own home. Anger covers your voice so the only thing people hear from you is noise. How do you deal with your anger when it is more a tool of self-destruction than an appropriate way of railing against the obnoxious?
Becoming a novelist allowed me to be invited into the bourgeoisie, and for about ten years I did experience something comparable to “la petite sirene” that Hans Christian Andersen describes. I was waltzing with the others. Every step was tearing me apart, but I had to pretend dancing was still a casual pleasure. Bye Bye Blondie deals with the pain of smiling when your new friends establish their happiness upon the collapse of your social class.
* * * *
The Royal, a bar that’s practically empty during the day. A big room with high ceilings, colored moldings, and pictures by a pal of the owner on the walls. It isn’t really designed for broad daylight, what seems fabulous at night looks a bit tatty by day. Just pushing open the door to the bar is reassuring in itself, in spite of the combined smell of stale tobacco and cleaning products.
“Ooooh, old lady! In one of our moods are we?”
Jérémy, behind the bar, bursts out laughing when he sees her. She would like to stay looking furious, on her high horse, but it doesn’t work. She smiles, and leans on the counter.
“Can you put it on my tab? Till Tuesday?”
“I’d like to say no, but I can see you’d smash the place up. A Jack?”
“Thankyouthankyouthankyou,” she chants, twisting her head on her neck to make the vertebrae click. That very morning, leaning over the washbasin, vomiting up her guts, she had sworn not to have a drink at all today. Her liver’s crying out for understanding, mercy, and respite. But seeing how the day’s turning out, to remain clearheaded wouldn’t be appropriate.
Gloria takes her glass and goes over to a seat. Slight headache, backache, she feels stiff. The warmth of the alcohol immediately unlocks her joints, her knees, the insides of her wrists and elbows. Something relaxes. But it’s still not enough to let her draw breath without pain.
She’s been here before, of course she has, she knows the score by heart. Pain doesn’t lessen with age, on the contrary. But she knows there’s nothing to be done, except wait, day after day, for it to get bearable. Another failure, par for the course, another breakup.
Gloria’s not her real name. Her parents had her christened Stéphanie. But even in primary school she’d changed it, every new year she tried a different one. That wreaked havoc when the teachers realized what she was up to, and it made the other kids suspicious when they figured out she was lying. She’d almost given up when Gloria the “punk princess” became a media icon. She realized it was time to settle on something. It was the early eighties, and she’d just discovered that there was something out there that spoke to her: the Sex Pistols, Bérurier Noir, Sham 69, and Taxi Girl. Hair carefully dyed electric blue, one evening in town she’d met this young guy who’d shown her the three chords for “Gloria” on a guitar. He’d announced, with that confidence possessed only by kids under twenty, that “it’s the most beautiful name in the world.” He was wearing a white Perfecto leather jacket. A dark-haired boy with broad shoulders, fleshy lips, and a piercing gaze. Possibly it wasn’t piercing at all, perhaps he was just nearsighted, but she had thought this was someone who could fathom the depths of your soul and caress its vice. Whatever, he’d blown her mind, and starting the next day she had told every new person she met: “Hi, I’m Gloria.” And the name had stuck. Because twenty years later, that’s still what peo- ple are calling her.
Jérémy sweeps by grandly, carries off her glass and brings it back full. He’s humming, walking with shoulders a little bent, his low-slung, hyperbaggy jeans exposing a band of belly: smooth golden skin, young man’s skin. With one hand, Gloria hoicks up his trousers, scolding: “Hey kid, get your ass back inside your pants.”
Jérémy wanders off, delighted that someone in this place has protested yet again about his trousers.
Two men have just arrived, and now they’re hardwired to the counter. Difficult to put an age on the older one, he’s so destroyed by drink. A caricature of the wine-bibbing Frenchman: strawberry nose, puffy face, sepulchral voice, rotten yellow teeth. With him is a hulking, ruddy-faced youngster, head sunk into his shoulders, probably his son.
The old man is yelling, he’s already plastered, and now he’s furious: “I don’t believe it! You got a brain or what? God should’ve given you another asshole, you’re so full of shit.”
Gloria exchanges a quick glance with Jérémy. They both roll their eyes and turn away to hide a smile.
Every day, these two come into the Royal, just to shout at each other all afternoon. Around aperitif time, off they go to the betting shop, the old one still yelling at the young one. Gloria predicts, as she watches them stagger away every night at about seven, that one day they won’t be back: the young one will have chucked the old one out the window.
The young one blows his nose, making a hell of a noise. Gray-and-red tracksuit, picked up on sale, no doubt, and he has these enormous feet. Gloria can’t get used to how big young boys’ feet are, she wonders if there’s some plan up there in the cosmos for the human race. Should it be planning to go and live underwater, growing long flippers? The kid’s jaw drops when he sees her, he looks truly impressed.
Gloria gets up and goes to the washroom to check what it is about her appearance that seemed to strike the youth so much. Looking in the mirror, she realizes better why all the dumb idiots she’d met on her way there had stared at her, trying not to show it. She’s been weeping her heart out so hard that there are broken blood vessels under her eyes and on her cheeks, and her face is tomato red. Makes her eyes look puffy. The cherry on the cake is that in her frenzy back at Lucas’s place, she’d banged her head against the wall a few times, so it looks like she’s wearing a red clown nose. The whole lot topped off with a wild-eyed expression. Yeah, she’d have stared at herself too.
She sings under her breath as she splashes water on her face: “Qu’est-ce que j’en ai à foutre et je ne crois en rien / je peux vivre au coup par coup / en coups durs de plus en plus” (“What the fuck do I care / Got nothin’ to believe in / Live day to day / Take what’s comin’”). She tugs several times on the roller towel to get a clean stretch. She plunges her face into the clean cotton fabric, it feels soft, like new. She stays like that for a bit.
Then she goes into a stall, and closes the slightly twisted bolt. A very clean hole, the size of an old five-franc coin, has been drilled in the door. At about knee height. More-or-less surrealist graffiti covers the walls from top to bottom. She’s always liked one of them, a little palm tree up to the right of the door. Whoever drew it took some trouble, using different colored felt pens. Among all the death threats, revenge slogans, and drawings of private parts, somebody stood on tiptoe to draw a little palm tree.
Back in the bar, she looks around for L’Est Républicain, the local paper, and sees it clutched in the pink false finger- nails 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. Gloria has to make do with a TV listing lying around for no particular reason. She leafs through it as she sips her second whiskey. It falls open at a two-page spread: Eric Muyr, his life, his mad period, his achievements, and his shitty new show . . . someone has drawn spots on his nose.
From BYE BYE BLONDIE. Used with permission of The Feminist Press. Copyright © 2016 by Virginie Despentes. Translation copyright © 2016 by Sian Reynolds.