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envoyée spéciale

25 march 2016

I don't quite know what to make of Jean Echenoz' new novel Envoyée spéciale, and I imagine that that outcome was Jean Echenoz' precise intention in writing it.

Well, I'll try to figure out a few things. "Envoyée spéciale" means "special agent," or in some professional senses "special correspondent." Several details in the novel mark it as a pastiche of Hitchcock films, Foreign Correspondent prime among them. In English "Foreign correspondent" is not a gendered phrase, except insofar as the part was played by Joel McCrea. In French, the special agent is a woman, and the title phrase is correspondingly feminine.

Like so many Hitchcock heroes, Constance is a spy in spite of herself. A maverick general and his shape-shifting man Friday need a woman who's a blank slate so that they can … well, it's kind of a spoiler to tell you the plans of Général Bourgeaud and Paul Objat, because we don't learn what they want Constance for till over halfway through the novel. We only know that the first step toward getting her to spy for them is to "purge" her of any initiative.

The spymasters accomplish this by having Constance kidnapped. They sub-contract the kidnapping to a team of knuckleheads who end up liking her so much that they re-kidnap her to keep her from their employers. Meanwhile, the kidnappers are baffled by the response to their ransom demands. They send Constance's husband, songwriter Lou Tausk, several demands for money and a severed finger. But Tausk could care less. He and Constance were moving toward divorce anyway, and her disappearance leaves Tausk free to carry on a series of affairs with his attorney brother's paralegals.

Meanwhile, the narrator keeps drifting in and out of possession of the facts of this elaborately contrived pseudo-spy-story. Instead of narrative directness, we get digressions on clipping one's nails, or on the similarities between elephant and butterfly pheromones. Meanwhile there seem to be only about ten characters in France. No sooner does a new character enter than we find out that he's an old character in a new costume or identity. At one point a character takes a taxi and the narrator has to go out of his way to tell us that the taxi driver isn't a character we've already met.

Such limited dramatis personae are a feature of contrived fictions going back at least as far as Les misérables. "Un homme" is always someone we already know. When the story, and indeed its genre, are preposterous to begin with, you can get some entertainment out of aggravating the contrivance.

Envoyée spéciale is thus an "entertainment" in the spirit of Graham Green's throwaway spy novels (which in most cases have become more celebrated than his more serious literary and philosophical fictions). The course of literary history has made genre fiction more serious than serious fiction, and Echenoz takes this development to heart. One might still object that Envoyée spéciale is still a throwaway: lighter in tone, more ironic, more frivolous than anything Greene or Hitchock created. It's fiction that succeeds through its own insouciance. Yet it is entertaining. One wants to see what becomes of the characters (and one dog), and one wants particularly to see how the author will balance on the knife-edge between hard-boiled violence and silly irrelevance. Whatever this novel may be, it's definitely not the same old thing.

I really like Echenoz, and I really like novels like Envoyée spéciale – offbeat, energetic texts that place their energies on describing what life is like in the context of improbable yarns. These are true highbrow guilty pleasures, because they seem utterly apolitical, indeed to airily turn their back on a world of problems. But sometimes I think there's a higher escapism, one that insists on the delight of life in the midst of the intractable. At the edges of Envoyée spéciale, because of its chosen genre, are tough, lethal characters and repressive dictatorships, all the gangsterism and cruelty of the 21st century, if hemmed in by genre and ironically defanged. Sometimes you have to laugh, and sometimes you shouldn't do anything but laugh.

Echenoz, Jean. Envoyée spéciale. Paris: Minuit, 2016.