This the fifth Jean Echenoz book reviewed on this blog (check the right sidebar to link to the other four), which nudges him ahead of John McGahern in the “most-reviewed” category, but McGahern will catch up soon (so will Edith Wharton for that matter). Obviously, I like Echenoz, so before addressing Big Blondes, I perhaps should explain why.
Echenoz does not write big books; he writes big small ones — at 201 pages, Big Blondes is the longest that I have read, with Ravel checking in at 117. And for serious readers, who want a two to four hour read, with even more hours of contemplation, he fills a niche that few other authors even attempt (fans of the shorter fiction of Henry James and Wharton should pay attention). When I want to be challenged — but not for too long — he is on a very short list of my “go to” authors. If you have not read him, you should.
Big Blondes fits that description exactly. First published in translation in 1997, about midway in his translated career work to date, it has everything that you can want from this exceptional writer. He has written better books (I will admit upfront that Ravel, my first Echenoz, is still my favorite to date) but this one is not only great fun, it is excellent reading — and very, very contemporary, despite the fact that it is approaching two decades since Echenoz wrote the original French version.
Paul Salvador is a television producer on what we would now know as the cutting edge of “reality tv”. He works for Stochastic Films in Paris (“six floors of offices and studios, sixty million francs in yearly revenues”) and he has ideas about a new project about “blondes” — natural or chemical, he hasn’t sorted out which or both — who had their moment in the media sun. There are the obvious ones — Monroe and Bardot on one end of the spectrum, Jean Harlow and Doris Day on the other — but he is even more interested in those of the Warhol 15-minute variety.
In the short term, mainly he is obsessed with finding Gloria Stella:
Career brief: Born Gloire Abgrall, precocious teenage fashion model. Entered the world of variety shows under the pseudonym dreamed up by Gilbert Flon, her lover-cum-agent.
Bottom line: Those two 45s ["Excessive", "We're Not Taking Off"], a shot at the Olympia, a few tours as special guest star, number three on the hit parade for “Excessive”; photographs, autographs, fan club, movies on the horizon. It all looked very promising until Gilbert Flon took a suspicious dive down a fourth-floor elevator shaft.
Since then: suspicion, investigation, prosecution witnesses, indictment, trial, verdict (five years; extenuating circumstances), prison, release for good conduct, disappearance.
Okay, that reads a lot like a summary of the life of Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan. Except… when Echenoz wrote this book, Paris Hilton was only 14 years old and Lohan 9 and both had yet to find their rather weird niche. And the first edition of the reality prototype for “Survivor” was still two years away — on Swedish TV, some years before the American version. What did Echenoz know that the rest of the world didn’t?
In addition to warning us of what the television world is going to look like a few decades down the road, Echenoz likes to pay homage to the mystery and spy novelists and movie makers of the past (you can spend endless hours with this book spotting references from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Ian Flemming to Alfred Hitchcock). The references show up early in this novel in the opening chapter as Salvador is meeting with Jouve (his private investigator/subject tracker) in the film company offices, coincidentally not far from the headquarters of the French counterintelligence service. Here’s a look at his instructions:
“Take a look anyway,” said Salvador, handing him a ream of press clippings and photos depicting the same young woman, always on the point of departure, with captions mentioning the name of Gloria Stella.
Two kinds of photos. On the four-color ones, cut from the glossy pages of weekly magazines, one could see her leaving the stage, or bursting from a Jaguar or a jacuzzi. On the other, slightly more recent ones, in poorly screened black-and-white garnered from the Society pages of the daily press, you could see her exiting a police station, leaving a lawyer’s office, or walking down the steps of a courthouse. If the first batch of photos, perfectly lit, abounded in dazzling smiles and triumphant looks, the second was filled with averted eyes behind dark glasses and closed lips, flattened out by the flashbulbs and hastily centred.
And so as a reader you have your three points of view, each of which Echenoz uses as a brilliantly-lit stage to launch a set of very different observations about the modern world.
Gloria: Her efforts to escape her 15 minutes of fame range from Paris to Brittany to Australia to India — and she is tracked down each time. The author uses those venues to turn a critical eye not just on those who are chasing her but the international travellers who are a feature of the luxury hotels in those locations (and those who exploit the rich visitors). What is life like when you have had a brief moment of fame and now merely want to escape its consequences? Just as a teaser, she has a homunuclus, the one-foot tall Beliard, to help her in times of difficulty — Echenoz likes the surreal as much as he like foretelling the real.
Salvador: The obvious candidate for contemporary satire, with his television series plans, he emerges — at least for this reader — as an ominous omen of what has come to pass in the degeneration of the medium in the two decades since this book was written. Marlene Dietrich, Kim Novak and others join the list I have already detailed as he contemplates his project. One has to feel sorry for Gloria and her future if he ever finds her. If you are even mildly curious about that historical, blonde movie world, you will find much to contemplate in this novel.
Jouve (and his associates): Echenoz uses this operator for a whole different set of observations on the notion of intelligence, tracking and all the shadowy aspects of that (it is one of his specialities in some of his other novels). This storyline does not just relate to its predecessors like Doyle and Flemming, it moves on to the equally troubling world of modern intelligence, both state and private-operated.
And while the author delivers on specific aspects of all three of those stages, he never lets them wander off independently of each other. They may be separate platforms, but there are consistent links between all three and the central story never loses focus. All of this in 201 pages of tightly-written narrative, thanks to an excellent translation from Mark Polizzotti.
So do you think this will be the last Echenoz reviewed on this blog? Not a chance — I have two more in hand already (Double Jeopardy and I’m Gone) and there are more available to order. I would predict with confidence that regular visitors can expect to read about another volume from this wonderful author every six months or so in the near future. If you haven’t read Jean Echenoz, now is a good time to start the project — you have a healthy list of excellent books still awaiting you.