And with that, Janis Joplin captures the beautiful/painful dichotomy of Sarah Lotz's Pompidou Posse. Vicki and Sage are seventeen and practically drowning in freedom. After an incident (fire, building, art college), the two friends make the only 'rational' decision: they run away to Paris. Armed with Pet Semetary, some 2000AD comics, a few of their favourite sculptures and, of course, their boots, the duo head to the city of love to find themselves. They're young, they're artistic; they've got enough money for at least two bottles of cheap wine... and, plus, they're together. What else do they need?
As it turns out: quite a bit.
Pompidou Posse oscillates between the joy and the agony of perpetual freedom. Vicki and Sage are responsible to no one and to nothing; their anarchic existence is purely about scraping together enough money for wine, shelter and the occasional shower. Any excess is spent on, well... more wine (or other addictions). This is freedom: they're making art, they're making friends, and they're living beholden to no one.
But at the same time, there's a darker side to absolute freedom. Having nothing to lose may feel like a blessing, but the pair become increasingly untethered. For the fey Vicki, flirtations and wine turn into sex and hard drugs, as she grows wilder and more abandoned in her search for sensation. Sage stays more grounded, but only because she feels responsible for Vicki; a responsibility that becomes increasingly more jealous and obsession. The one true thing - the one thing they have left to lose - is the girls' friendship, and as Pompidou Posse builds, we realise even that's at stake.
Pompidou is also more than Vicki and Sage and their beautifully desperate relationship - it is one of the most heart-breaking and bleakly comic look at homelessness since Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. The beauty/horror of freedom comes to life not just in the two protagonists, but in the cast around them - from self-consciously zany students to burned out buskers to the disabled and the lost, eking out an existence in a self-made culture on the fringes of society. Just as Orwell decoded life on the streets of 1930s Paris, Lotz does the same for the 1980s. There's failure and horror and tragedy, a-plenty, but, and perhaps most importantly, there's also the savage joy that comes from the tiny triumphs. This an unsparing portrait life for the 'down and out', but yet so wonderfully empathetic - so wonderfully real - that the reader shares in the good times as much as the bad.
Pompidou Posse is one of my favourite contemporary novels, in any genre. There's the compelling emotional connection that comes with the best fiction - this is Orwell by way of Eleanor & Park - but that's underpinned with the fact that this is, ultimately, real. Sarah Lotz based Pompidou on her own experiences living rough in Paris, and it is impossible to ignore the power (and, indeed, the poetry) that comes from the novel's autobiographical origins. This is using fiction to explore the world; to investigate - clearly, cleverly and cruelly - one's own life. It takes a talented author to pull this off without descending into MFA levels of self-indulgence, and, in this particular case, Sarah Lotz proves she is one of the best. Rather than lionising her own past, she embraces it. She simply presents the story rather than preaching it, and generously - unselfishly - lets readers draw their own conclusions.
I love this book, and, for me, it is as close to an 'essential' read as anything could ever be. Alternately glorious and horrifying - just like life is - Pompidou Posse an unflinching tale of freedom and friendship, and all that those really entail.
Terms & Conditions: Unusually, this is a review of a book that Anne acquired/edited for Hodder & Stoughton. I normally avoid that because, you know: Anne. However, in this case, I'm on record years before acquisition as saying this book is the bee's knees. So feel free to take this with a grain of salt, or, more optimistically, think about it this way: even though I know I shouldn't talk about this book, I can't help but do so. It is that damn good.