It’s been almost three years since I read my first book by Virginie Despentes. What I loved most about her essay “King Kong Theory” was the angry and polemic writing. Although the title suggests otherwise her new novel “Dear Asshole” (Cher connard) strikes a calmer tone. It tells the story of a reluctant friendship between Rebecca and Oscar.
Rebecca, 50-ish years old, is an aging star actress, who struggles to find work and does not mince her words with her rather gruff manner. Oscar, in his early-mid 40s, is a whiny writer, who struggles to be a father and sees himself as a innocent victim of #MeToo. Both come from a similar background. Both have been addicts for years.
After Oscar publishes an insulting social media post about Rebecca, they begin to write each other (at first rather hostile) e-mails. Eventually some sympathy and even friendship develops between the two. Their exchange is continuously interrupted by Zoë, a feminist blogger, whose texts break with the classic structure of the epistolary novel. Zoë’s posts about Oscar start a heated online debate that has a lasting impact on both of their lives.
Using the example of these three characters – Rebecca, Oscar, Zoë – Despentes negotiates the issues that have shaped public discourse in the past few years: #MeToo, social media, feminism, shit storms, online hate, technology, Covid, mental health – and even car-free cities. The topic of addiction plays a central role in the novel, the yearning for excess and the attempt to get clean, which shape the two main characters’ lives.
Due to the development of their friendship Rebecca and Oscar begin to open up and gradually reveal more of themselves to each other (and the reader). As if she were peeling back the skins of an onion layer by layer, Despentes slowly shows what constitutes these people. This process is interesting to read because it unmasks their unreliable narratives and makes the characters more tangible – and anything but one dimensional.
Nevertheless, the story sometimes seemed a little in-your-face with its attempt to talk about (nearly) all socially relevant debates of the past years. The ending of the novel was a little too idealistic and fairy tale-esque for my taste: The culprits were purified, the ill became healthy-ish – and in the end not all is well, but at least everything is a little better than before.
Besides all the frustration about toxic debate culture and societal crises there is mainly one thing at the novel’s heart: the hope, that things can get better somehow – even if it’s only in the personal sphere. But, as we know, that is also political.
Before reading I expected “Dear Asshole” to be an angry novel. Instead, the story has something forgiving. And even if it did not meet my personal reading taste, after the past few years, a little idealism and hope surely can’t hurt.
Thank you to Kiepenheuer & Witsch für the review copy! You can learn more about the book here and you can find my review of Virginie Despentes’ “King Kong Theory” here.
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