Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory is an angry and passionate manifesto against late capitalist patriarchy, a story about sexual assault and trauma that centres the survivor.
Thumbing the crisp pages of Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory, newly translated by Frank Wynne, I found myself marking the margins of pages with an array of index stickers: blue, red, orange, yellow and green coalesced in a chaotic mess. Generally, this means I have been offered plenty to mull over during the course of reading a book.
However, I write this more than a month after, and my thoughts remain as much of a flurry as the index stickers I’ve filled the book with. A sharp contrast to Despentes’ thoroughly organised anger, which pours over in these opening lines: ‘I write from the realms of the ugly, for the ugly, the old, the bull dykes, the frigid, the unfucked, the unfuckable, the hysterics, the freaks, all those excluded from the great meat market of female flesh.’ It is a great testament to the translator, in this case, that such initial anger is able to come across as mellifluous, almost sweet in its ugliness. Sweetness and anger clash. The cadences of Despentes’ anger swim through the opening page, highs and lows pronounced for the reader. There is a moment of solemnity, then, which arrives in the form of a resonant pause: ‘It just so happens that I’m not one of them.’
To carve her boundaries separately from the ‘norm’ denotes an agreement between herself and the reader that this is, ultimately, not a narrative where everyone will find something to glean, on a personal level. In fact, it is a targeted anger that will not resign itself to conformity in any measure. I am enamoured from the beginning, and my initial impression of King Kong Theory aligns with that of Lauren Elkin, on the subject of reading Despentes’ body of work: ‘I would feel that instead of me reading it, it was reading me.’
While Elkin frames her comment in a negative sense, I feel an inverted comfort at being ‘read’ by Despentes, especially when she discusses not feeling ‘remotely ashamed at not being some super-hot babe’. How delightful it is to have a gaze on you that does not relegate you to the ‘meat market of female flesh’, hanging on display for purchase.
But as one travels along the crucial concerns Despentes sheds light on – a formative experience with sexual assault and residual trauma, sex work and moving away from living within pain inflicted by a late capitalist, patriarchal world structured against women – I can’t help but wonder if this manifesto, written in 2006, is due for a minor update. She remains, of course, spot-on in criticising women who buy into performing and protecting poor male behaviour: ‘powerful women are the allies of men.’ I am eerily reminded of numerous experiences of my own, as well as stories from other women, where the women in our lives actively place the onus on us when something goes awry, what Despentes calls being the ‘dignified victim’ who ‘knows how to hold her tongue’. On a systemic scale, many powerful women in history, and Margaret Thatcher immediately comes to mind, perform male behaviour to ensure their own consolidation of power and position on the capitalist social ladder.
There is another striking instance, where she discusses her experience with processing rape in detail. She turns to the words of Camille Paglia, whose proposal of ‘rape as a risk inherent to the condition of being a woman’ provided Despentes with the ability to ‘live with’ her trauma, a sense of validation Despentes resonates with from carrying on with life as before. I remain stunned by the earnest nature of this complex admission.
However, there is a sense of the binaries enforced in male/female relations. More obviously dated is a particular point made in her conclusion: ‘But among the things so decorously drummed into [men] is the fear of being faggots, the obligation to love women.’ Setting this within context, she is speaking of how men prop each other up – ‘write for each other, congratulate each other’ – and structure the late capitalist patriarchal order for themselves. A perfectly reasonable observation, undermined by an appropriated slur – one I am wondering about the impact of in the context of translation – as well as a perplexing conclusion that rides roughshod over the struggles faced by male members of the LGBT+ community.
Occasionally bordering on outdated, a lot of Despentes’ impassioned plea against the late capitalist patriarchal order remains firmly pertinent to the world we currently live in. I know I loved reading this, but I remain unsure about how much I am able to agree with Despentes on certain issues. Still, I believe this is an important read for those wanting to hear from survivors of assault, as it presents a perspective that is not sanitised for the public eye. The manifesto should be read for what it is: the individual rallying against a system she knows she cannot win against, but similarly knows she can push against in a way that works for her and could, perhaps, work for those with similar beliefs.
King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes is translated by Frank Wynne and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and is available to purchase online and in bookshops around the UK.
This review was commissioned for Life in Languages, a series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Jen Calleja, Saskia Vogel, Leïla Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes, Guest Editor of Life in Languages
Submissions are now closed for this series. Read all work for Life in Languages here.
Feature image is a detail of Jean-François Paga’s portrait of Virginie Despentes.