In King-Kong Theory (2006), her autobiography and feminist manifesto, Virginie Despentes describes a job she’d held almost two decades earlier. In 1989, aged twenty, Despentes was employed by Minitel, France’s precursor to the World Wide Web. She was a moderator on one of its servers, overseeing a message board where she was paid to disconnect anyone who used offensive language. Offenders included racists, anti-semites, paedophiles and, finally, sex workers.
‘One had to be sure that the service wasn’t being used by women who wanted to freely choose to use their bodies to make money,’ Despentes writes jokingly, aware that her efforts did little to stop the rise of the text sex services known as the ‘Minitel rose’. Despentes was paid to censor, but she was also paid to watch. She writes, in King-Kong Theory, that ‘all modern communication methods are first and foremost used for selling sex’, going on to describe how her experiences with Minitel later inspired her to go into sex work herself, using the service to find occasional clients over a period of two years.
It’s the image of Despentes as a forum moderator that remains with me: an all-seeing figure, perhaps a little disgusted, and almost certainly amused, watching through a dark glass as society unfolds in all its exhilarating complexity in front of her.
In her novels, Despentes takes on a similar role. Her latest, the Vernon Subutex series follows a diverse cast of Parisians, some young, some older, but most of them Generation X. They’re ageing messily, clinging to the ideals and affectations of their youth, and preserving a worn-in sense of mutiny which has only complicated their middle age. The books are a satire on fading punk politics, but they also give us Despentes at her most compassionate, and hopeful.
The first two Vernon books have been translated into English by Frank Wynne and were published in the UK last year – a third has yet to arrive – and a TV adaptation is in the works starring Romain Duris. Vernon Subutex 1 begins with the death of Alex Bleach, a self-destructive rock star who has left behind tapes revealing inflammatory celebrity secrets. The tapes are found by Bleach’s friend Vernon, a former record dealer who has fallen on hard times, who bed-hops his way around Paris for several weeks before taking to the streets, pursued by a cast of friends, enemies and fans of the dead rockstar. Centered on Vernon’s trajectory – downward, mostly, but cut with moments of transcendence – the novels include a sprawling cast of French archetypes which Despentes introduces, scrutinises and subverts.
Despentes’ writing is caustic, but generous even to her least-sympathetic characters. Racism, bigotry, domestic violence and abuse of power all feature in Vernon Subutex, viewed through the eyes of perpetrators as often as through those of their victims. Despentes has not so much moved away from feminism as broadened her cross hairs: the rage which fuelled her debut, the revenge fantasy Baise-Moi (1994), is still there, as are the conflicts, injustices and hypocrisies addressed in subsequent works like Bye Bye Blondie (2004), Pretty Things (2008) and Apocalypse Baby (2010). In the Vernon books, however, these themes have fermented into something at once introspective and overarching; no longer ‘A Gun for Every Girl’, as in King Kong Theory, now Despentes envisions what comes after the rampage.
The Vernon series is the culmination of a career spent scratching at scars and exposing society’s contradictions: the smarmy yet self-loathing middle classes, the complicit women, the men inside the patriarchal system who seem barely capable of being, let alone wanting to be in control. Despentes identifies these flaws and looks closer rather than turning away, not least with her leading man: ‘Vernon is gentle, Vernon fucks divinely, Vernon is a little disturbing. Vernon has got everything going for him…’
Each portrait in the Vernon books is so intimate as to be claustrophobic; Emilie is Vernon’s old bandmate, a former punk with self-esteem issues, whose concessions to good taste (‘a sensible bob’, making up, it seems, for her mohawk years) and willingness to be taken advantage of by men make her frustrating yet gently tragic. Vernon, meanwhile, is the product of an indie culture gone stale, a manic pixie nightmare boy whose career was euthanised by downloadable music, who now coasts along on his charm and his beautiful eyes. We should, I suppose, respect his spirit in the face of extreme hardship, but one of the most interesting things in the book is how Vernon is described from a variety of perspectives – affection and annoyance, obsession and hate – the kind of contradictory erotomania more often linked to the female experience in Despentes’ work. Despentes’ heroines have always been complicated; in Vernon we meet their male equivalent, an occasional sex object who cannot control or live up to other people’s expectations. We’re also given a glimpse into the minds of overtly dislikable characters, like Loïc, a violent neo-Nazi who is transformed by the forgiveness of a man he puts in hospital, or Laurent Dopalet, a film producer and serial sexual predator, conceived of a full two years before #MeToo appeared in headlines.
It’s worth considering Despentes’ body of work in the context of contemporary feminism, both online and in real life, because Despentes has always been at once ahead of her times and at odds with them. Her taste for pulp vengeance seems calculated to disturb rather than to inspire, and her heroines are too morally ambivalent to be summarised in tweets. Despentes speaks directly to this question of belonging, or not belonging, in the Vernon books, which depict older feminists in a fraught, ongoing dialogue with younger ones. The series is set in a place of broader cultural turbulence and shifting morality, where the new is often at war with the old (Vernon is essentially made homeless by the internet, while the Hyena, a former private eye, switches to work as a troll-for-hire, an online saboteur paid to destroy the reputations of her targets). Characters can be at odds with each other, but are united by music, at parties and outdoor raves, which offers a vague, delirious template for social harmony.
Best-selling and Man Booker-nominated, the Vernon series will introduce new readers to Despentes’ previous works, recently published in English translations by the Feminist Press. Bye Bye Blondie, Apocalypse Baby and, most recently, Pretty Things, form an informal triptych where pulp tropes are seized for the feminist cause. Their politics can be traced back to Baise-Moi, the rape-revenge narrative written when Despentes was in her mid-twenties, which serves as an incendiary ur-text for her feminism.
At the time of its release, critics of Baise-Moi were elated and horrified in equal measure by the story of two women, one a sex worker and the other a survivor of rape, who go on a killing spree. It was read as a statement of intent, a glimpse of a world where marginalised women suffer for too long and resort to carnage. But it offered no solution beyond violence and suicide; eventually Manu is shot, off-screen, while holding up a shop, and Nadine is arrested before she can enact further vengeance. If there is hope, it is only in their fleeting sisterhood; before they meet and commence their rampage, the two women are aimless, vulnerable and alone.
There is a trajectory in Despentes’ work that mirrors her own conflicted passage to fame, from punk teenager to sex worker, to writer, filmmaker and public figure. Feminism carries her from violent revenge to a quieter struggle, a volatile state of complicity where her heroines hate themselves as much as the systems (patriarchal, capitalist, narcotic, psychological and self-sabotaging) that they live under. Hints of an alternative appear; in Pretty Things this means dropping out of society entirely, while in Bye Bye Blondie there is redemption in a loving relationship, one where the man and woman are equal (intriguingly, the 2011 film adaptation switches this to a relationship between two women). Apocalypse Baby puts two worlds into direct conflict; a teenage girl (straight, neglected by her parents and taken advantage of by boys) is pursued by two women, a lesbian and her bi-curious accomplice, whose calmer, more mature approach to life might possibly save her.
Finally, in the Vernon books, Despentes turns her gaze to men, revealing them to be every bit as conflicted as her women. Her mission has expanded, proposing a community (in the Parc des Bouttes-Chaumont, where Vernon lives rough) united by openness, hedonism and love for each other. It’s a utopia, fragile and complicated, and it only really exists in fleeting moments. But it’s a vision of change, more lasting than the high from a drug-fuelled killing spree.
Pretty Things, published in 2008, takes contradictory femininity as its theme. The plot at first glance sounds a little ridiculous: a pair of twins born to an unhappy household, and raised to compete for the affections of a violent father, grow up as complete opposites of each other. Claudine – provocative, ambitious and rarely short of male attention – dreams of becoming a pop star but can’t sing. She asks her sister, Pauline – shy, inhibited and antisocial, but gifted with a beautiful voice – to stand in for her at a gig, a rare collaboration between two sisters who are more often at odds with each other. One sister wants to build a career on the male gaze, the other is utterly uncooperative with it. The night of the performance, suddenly finding herself eclipsed by her sister, Claudine commits suicide by throwing herself out a window.
Despentes’ untranslated works include the 2001 short story collection Mordre au travers, some of which feature the grim, comic punchline of a woman who dies when she is no longer useful to a man. In Pretty Things we witness this woman’s afterlife; Claudine, the embodiment of a male fantasy, dies, but rather than pursuing her own path, Pauline, the studious sister, enters an unlikely kind of mourning. She takes on the identity of Claudine, dressing in her clothes, infiltrating her network, and smiling and nodding when men approach her to reminisce about sexual encounters with a body that was not her own.
What can we take from the ease with which Pauline assumes Claudine’s identity and finds stardom? That the gaze, under which all women are interchangeable, will devour us all? That it can be financially rewarding, enough to make the experience worthwhile? Was Claudine really as disposable as she believed, and was her existence meaningless? Or should we admire Pauline for her ability to manipulate, switching off her emotions for a paycheck?
There are moments in this novel when Pauline and the reader are in on the joke that is her identity, but more often femininity is framed as a kind of trauma. In one scene Pauline has sex with a record exec, a man who, like Vernon’s Laurent Dopalet, sees himself as a benevolent patron rather than as a predator (perhaps more like R. Kelly than Weinstein – Depentes writes, ‘He has to venerate them a little to be able to really debase them’). We watch Pauline watching him watching her as a particular version of herself, a male fantasy, both ingénue and siren. Despentes writes, ‘If he knew the actual effect his nub of rotten meat has on her, he would surely think there was something wrong with her.’
There’s something so vicious condensed in those lines; the idea that, were anyone to reveal the truth to men, the only way they could comprehend their privilege would be to imagine every woman as mentally ill.
Perhaps women are mad. Perhaps femininity itself is a mental illness, Despentes suggests, one we can only hope to cure with self-interrogation and time (it seems deliberate that, in the Vernon books, the androgynous, trans and queer characters are frequently the most emotionally balanced, having made gender their own). Pretty Things can seem frothy, a fantasy of instant fame rather than a nightmare of self-abnegation. But there’s a violence at its core that few followers of Despentes’ work will find surprising. It is linked directly to sex, to desire and to gender and its compulsory performance. The more Pauline caters to that desire, the more she is hated, and wanted too, and her awareness of this makes for uncomfortable reading.
There is a scene in Pretty Things that takes place at a sex club, that is every bit as grotesque, as weird and militantly morbid as something from Michel Houellebecq’s Platform. Pauline walks around in the dark and is propositioned by strangers, and sex – at least, the kind of sex Pauline has been having – is unveiled as a grim, mechanical theatre. Seven years before the publication of Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, Despentes captures the futility of a ‘liberation’ where women express their sexuality solely on male terms. She depicts the mass of writhing bodies as ‘a very, very restrained bacchanal of meek and stubborn blasphemy’; a hospice; a warzone after battle; a BDSM Raft of the Medusa.
Still, in Despentes, deliverance from ‘the shipwreck of heterocentrism’ is never far away. Among her novels, Apocalypse Baby is perhaps the easiest to define as a queer feminist work, a road narrative featuring two private investigators: Lucie, a milquetoast slacker in her thirties, and the Hyena, a presence equal parts magnetic and menacing, a scene-stealer who returns, brilliantly, in a supporting role in the Vernon Subutex books. In Apocalypse Baby the two women set off on the tail of Valentine, the fifteen-year-old daughter of a writer and public intellectual, who has run away from home. They drive from Paris to Barcelona, encountering punks, criminals and feckless teenage boys, an orgy with a group of lesbians in Barcelona, and finally an oddly cagey, politically-suspect nun.
Already we see Despentes renegotiating themes from her earlier work, and its promise of feminist vengeance. The two protagonists are more preoccupied with enjoying life – the Hyena is self-serving and morally ambivalent, while Lucie begins a relationship with a woman she meets on their travels, and discovers that she is suddenly happy. It’s Valentine who cuts a tragic figure, naive yet world-weary, a forlorn shadow of teen spirit. You get the sense she’d have more hope, and fun, if she could get into the music Despentes pledged herself to at a similar age. Instead she looks for approval in men, who only take advantage of her.
Handed a picture of Valentine by her parents, who are paying for her to be traced, the Hyena instantly perceives her as ‘a bombshell of emotion, stunning and irrational… a tailspin, out of control.’ Perhaps she sees another victim to save from the shipwreck, a girl embarking on a lifetime in the femininity game. The Hyena, as it turns out, cannot reach her. ‘I’m plague, I’m cholera,’ Valentine writes in her notebook, ‘Bird flu, the neutron bomb/ I’m a radioactive bitch.’ Once again we encounter painful femininity, the dingy pedestal you stand on for life, until you fall.
It’s less noticeable than in Pretty Things, but Apocalypse Baby presents a similarly two-faced vision of gender in the troubled Valentine, and the androgynous, liberated, charismatic Hyena. The Hyena is Despentes’ gift to the world, and, it seems more than likely, a literary analogue for Paul Preciado, Despentes’ former partner, the author of the groundbreaking hormone study-slash-addiction memoir Testo Junkie. Apocalypse Baby appears to be dedicated to Preciado – it’s marked ‘For B.P.’ (Paul was called Beatriz then, before transitioning). If this isn’t clue enough, there’s the Hyena’s claim that the thing about testosterone ‘isn’t the quantity, it’s the quality’, bragging that ‘with me they’re like bitches in heat, they don’t realise what’s happening. They just fall in love with me.’
I’m in love with the Hyena. You should be, too. Described as a ‘brazen invertebrate’, a ‘satisfied lizard’, she is at once aware of gender and utterly transcendent of it. In King Kong Theory, Despentes describes rape as having made her feel ‘female, disgustingly female, in a way I had never felt, and have never felt since’. The Hyena lives on the other side of that binary, somewhere off the scale in a world of her own. She has connections to the underground, to far-flung political regimes and hackers, and dealers of the purest cocaine on earth. Her style is a kind of masculine rockstar drag – leather jacket, skull rings, sunglasses after dark – like guys during the glory days of The Libertines (or, for that matter, Vernon Subutex). She hits on women constantly, shamelessly, but this is only part of her selfless mission to save them from men.
Two instances of the supernatural appear in Despentes’ work, which hint at the future she envisions for her politics. The first is Vernon Subutex’s canonisation as a mystic, by an Amazonian crust-punk on the banks of the artificial lake in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. The second is the Hyena’s extrasensory powers. Meeting people for the first time, or in moments of tension, the Hyena can tell when people are lying to her. Life on the margins has heightened her senses to the level of clairvoyance:
The sound of blood, other people’s blood, started to reach her. The drives, hidden thoughts, secrets that had never been whispered. She found it easier and easier to judge people. Their ferocity. Their weaknesses.
As with Vernon, whose fall from grace – and bourgeoisie comfort – leads to spiritual exaltation, it is the Hyena’s indifference to social norms which allows her to see through them. Her anger is transformative. Despentes describes the Hyena in ‘attack mode’, taking on a strength beyond that of her body: ‘She’s become a different person, her voice has changed, the pupils of her eyes have changed, her whole face is transformed by a vicious but contained anger.’ A creature purely of rage; something other than woman, other than human. Lucie watches from the sidelines, disturbed: ‘It’s the pleasure she takes in it that bothers me most. She has a gift for suggesting that things might get worse, and that she would be only too pleased if they did.’
‘Worse’, but for whom? In 2009 Despentes directed Mutantes, a documentary featuring interviews with sex workers, activists and creatives who play a role in creating ‘post-porn’ pornography. I’ve searched the internet for this film and can’t find it, but I find even its title fascinating. It reminds me of xenofeminism, the technology which liberates women from the tyranny of the ‘natural’, as well as Preciado’s gender-smashing ‘protocols’ in Testo Junkie.
How do we imagine a mutant future? What role will female rage play in its creation? The term ‘mutant’ is a beautiful choice; it implies something biological, yet distorted and unfamiliar. In horror films the monster is frequently kept out of shot, because to see it would ruin the tension. Something similar is hinted at in Despentes’ work. Her women, and sometimes her men, tip over with a rage which has never before found expression. It lacks a template, because it has never before been articulated in words. This makes it almost impossible to imagine, but the term ‘mutant’, at least, offers some clue.
Bye Bye Blondie, frequently called Despentes’ ‘lighter’ romance novel, contains detailed passages about a similarly transformative rage. It overwhelms even the person experiencing it, the protagonist, Gloria, whose teenage years were spent between punk rock gigs, street gangs, and the mental health ward. Now approaching middle age, she reunites with her first love, Eric, who has gone on to success as a TV personality. Their connection is profound, but Gloria’s explosive anger threatens to derail it.
Gloria is fuelled by that same rage, common to Despentes’ heroines, and viewed by those around her – and, sometimes, by Gloria herself – as a symptom of mental illness. As with Pauline’s sexual encounters with the repulsive record exec in Pretty Things, Gloria’s anger might well be a symptom of a disordered personality, but that doesn’t negate the problems of the world in which she operates. Gloria rages against capitalism, against the class system, against femininity and all the standards she’s expected to live up to. She’s confused by Eric, whose love comes with the promise of wealth and comfort, and deflects her anger onto herself and the man who loves her. ‘I’m not happy anywhere,’ she says. ‘I can’t leave myself. If I could, I’d run a mile.’
Gloria says exactly what someone who is traumatised would say. Eventually she finds a way out, by turning this trauma into autobiographical writing, another version of crying in the street. But she identifies a purifying aspect to her rage, one she is occasionally afraid of:
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, and dangerous, filling her with shame.
In ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ Hélène Cixous outlines a void in literary history, a distinctly female absence which is a slight, a prompt and a challenge to women who write, now and in the future. Once women begin to articulate their experiences, this ‘overflow’ of desires and facts and thoughts, then a previously dark portion of the world will be lit up with possibilities. It won’t always be easy; Cixous writes, ‘Who, surprised and horrified by the fantastic tumult of her drives (for she was made to believe that a well-adjusted normal woman has a… divine composure), hasn’t accused herself of being a monster?’
Gloria is that monster, but she is a heroine too. In a sense her conflict is no different to that of any creative person, a struggle to harness outlandish sensitivity and to wrestle it into a coherent shape. But there’s something very female about her self-doubt, how she damns herself before even fully articulating what she’s feeling. Bye Bye Blondie was published two years before King Kong Theory, precisely the kind of manifesto someone like Gloria would benefit from. In it, Despentes speaks ‘as an ugly one for the ugly ones: the old hags, the dykes, the frigid, the unfucked, the unfuckables, the neurotics, the psychos’. She gives weight to their complaints; she takes her reader seriously, even as she laughs at the society that has led them to her.
In King Kong Theory, Despentes is adamant that she, and her reader, have chosen the better track. She writes, ‘I would never swap places, because it seems to me that being Virginie Despentes is a more interesting business than anything else going on out there.’ This sense of possibility – beyond revenge, beyond simply levelling the score with men – becomes more ambitious and all-encompassing over the course of her career, and finds its fullest expression in Vernon Subutex’s warped utopia. Her writing is no longer about being Virginie Despentes; it’s about imagining the future.
‘Dirty, degrading, and dangerous…’ In Bye Bye Blondie, Gloria’s fits of anger are like shorter, less-fatal echoes of the killing spree in Baise-Moi, Despentes’ rape-revenge novel (1994) and its film adaptation (2000), co-directed with Coralie Trinh Thi, the first film to be banned in France since the early 1970s. I remember it being displayed with a yellow warning sticker in my local video shop in Dublin, alongside American Psycho and Audition (but not, interestingly, the rape-revenge exploitation classic I Spit On Your Grave, which remains banned in Ireland to this day).
It feels necessary to revisit it in writing this piece, to go back to the start. Today I’m watching the film on a dubious, possibly not-legal website called ‘Effedupmovies.com’. Hentai-themed spam animations frame the video player; messages include ‘Try Not To Cum’, ‘You Won’t Last 5 Mins’, and ‘Don’t Keep the Russian Girl of Your Dreams Waiting’. It makes me wonder what kind of viewer is watching, in 2019, and why. It forces me to consider the film’s context.
When it was first released, Baise-Moi was regarded as dangerous, and labelled as ‘exploitation’. In a sense that’s exactly what it is; a film operating in the exploitation tradition, where a loose plot is hung upon violent set-pieces and unsimulated sex scenes. The protagonists Manu and Nadine are played by porn actresses Raffaëla Anderson and Karen Lancaume, both of whom are French with North African heritage. They seem at all times to be in on the joke, posing with guns in lingerie before going out and doing terrible things to bystanders.
Baise-Moi speaks a common language with the enemy, the films which objectify women or cast them as two-dimensional accessories. Isn’t that the point, to seize the means of popular cultural production and turn them to a new, and disturbingly fresh purpose? In King-Kong Theory, Despentes observes, ‘In women’s literature, examples of insolence or hostility towards men are extremely rare.’ Baise-Moi remedies this, with brutal efficacy. She goes on to ask, in brilliantly deadpan style: ‘How is it that in thirty years no man has produced the slightest innovative work on masculinity?’
Time’s up. Time was up, back in the late nineties, and in the decades before. Baise-Moi had a self-justifying effect on culture, in that its critical response only confirmed a poverty of imagination around narratives where women are in control. Critics made reference, again and again, to Thelma and Louise, the story of two white women who have significantly more to lose, whose deaths are a ceremony watched over by tokens of Americana – the cops, the Grand Canyon and a gleaming blue Ford Thunderbird. It’s not a completely different narrative, but there’s a key difference in that Nadine and Manu have nothing but the lives they’ve taken and the money they’ve stolen. There’s no heroism either, only a short-lived high from the drugs and the violence. Manu’s death is ignominious and tawdry, and we don’t get to see what becomes of Nadine (does she enjoy a kind of infamy in prison? Is she idolised, like Ted Buddy, or hated, like Aileen Wuornos?).
There’s something oddly flat about these women, who go through the violent motions like they’re playing a video game. They could embark on a thousand rampages, slaughter whole villages of people, and still they wouldn’t have levelled the score. At one point they even acknowledge that they function on a purely metaphoric plane. They discuss their ‘lines’, and debate the most stylish and cinematic ways to kill:
‘Where are the witty lines?’
‘We’ve got the moves, at least.’
‘I mean, people are dying. The lines have to be up to it.’
In King Kong Theory, Despentes describes mainstream porn as a product of a male, heterosexual perspective; it’s ‘the method men use to imagine what they would do if they were women, how they would apply themselves to satisfying other men.’ In Baise-Moi, the joke is that two women from the margins of society have appropriated male methods of cinematic vengeance, the kind more often associated with samurai, or cowboys, or the Michael Douglas character in Falling Down.
Despite their differences, there’s a clear line that can be traced between Despentes’ first published work and her most recent novels. As Vernon Subutex 2 progresses, we encounter two younger, Gen Z female characters who enact revenge on a much older man. They tie him up and tattoo him with the words ‘RAPIST’, and ‘YOU’LL PAY’. As scenes go it’s outlandish and jarring, eliciting much the same feeling as the moment in Baise-Moi where a bullet is shot point-blank into a male victim’s anus.
The novel features such moments, mixed with calmer, more optimistic scenes. In Vernon Subutex 2, the friends eventually band together to form a commune where everyone can live as equals. To draw comparisons with the endings of Despentes’ other books would be to spoil them completely, but it seems likely, especially lately, that she is willing to explore less aggressive alternatives to murder, terrorism and suicide pacts.
That tattoo gun scene in Vernon Subutex does raise the question, however, of how Despentes relates to the current wave of networked feminism, the hashtags like France’s #balancetonporc (‘expose your pig’), and #MeToo on a broader, global scale. More than twenty years after Baise-Moi, are we in the midst of a reckoning she predicted, back at the dawn of the new millennium? Is this that same grandiose and logical unhingement, a collective outpouring of female rage shaping a future which remains as of yet unknown? Furthermore, shaped and mediated by social media (a platform far more commercial, and more efficiently censored than the Minitel of the 1980s), can this latter-day movement remain true to its aims?
It’s true that Despentes writes in anger, reacting, then reacting to people’s reactions in turn. King Kong Theory, as an example, is framed as a response to the censorship of Baise-Moi, which was itself a response to Despentes’ rape as a teenager. But it feels shallow to limit her to this tendency, when her work also contains hints of a better life. There’s a vision of the future – ambitious, new and unfamiliar even to those who embody it – which can be accessed, in Vernon Subutex, through openness, honesty, music and bacchanalian fun. The past can be redeemed, with forgiveness and tenderness and humour.
Despentes’ novels reveal a preoccupation with dramatic endings – the arrest, the burnout, the disappearance or the explosive act of revenge – but it is what comes afterwards, in her narratives, that makes her writing exciting after so many years. The future is mutant, and Baise-Moi, in all its vicious ceremony, will be remembered as its apocalyptic prologue.