Jean Echenoz has been writing satires since the 1980s. He’s a winner of the Prix Medicis and the Prix Goncourt and one of the leading voices of the French nouveau nouveau roman generation. His contemporaries include Jean-Phillippe Toussaint, Cristian Oster, and Olivier Rolin. And of these voices, Echenoz is the poet of the made-for-TV thriller. He is a master of camp, focusing especially on film tropes, soap opera, baggy spy plots, and 60s cool.
Special Envoy follows an incompetent ring of kidnappers, with an unclear goal. Sometimes the plotting is violent and nasty in his trademark deadpan. A man with an electric power drill kidnaps a young woman,
“So, said the main in overalls, I’m going to turn it on; watch, and Constance did indeed watch, in total silence, as the drill bit started quickly spinning around while one of the men, without letting go of Constance’s arm, used his other hand to lift the van’s tailgate… But obviously I’m not going to do anything like that, the man in overalls reassured her. I just wanted to show you. Anways, I’m going to leave you in peace now, he announced indicating the vehicle’s open tailgate, if you wouldn’t mind. And as Constance was turning toward the vehicle, she saw that its inside—separated from the front seat by a metal wall—was occupied by a comfortable-looking armchair whose feet and armrests had the unusual additional features of polypropylene straps with plastic buckles. An elegant black hood was casually folded on the seat back.”
Echenoz makes allusions and cracks wise: “This calm was suddenly disturbed by the distant howl of an animal, a powerful harrowing cry that affected Constance like a splash of acid, a razor slash, or an antipersonnel mine. She had no idea what kind of beast—onager or glyptodont—could have emitted it.”
He lays the cinematic references on thick, with Dr. Strangelove, and The Big Lebowski. Echenoz identifies the way visual vocabularies of our television and film culture seep deep into our language, so that the trance-like recitation of a spy plot comes across as an exercise in constraint. He celebrates the silly, Billy Bob Thornton and that 1983 global hit, “Vamos a la Playa.”
The plot hopscotches from the procedural to the madcap accompanied by dead pan commentary. The second half of the 20th Century, and the Cold War spy drama in particular, was the theater of oversized characters. Echenoz celebrates these egos. The generals are cantankerous, hitmen are particular, and the aging Pop-stars will not be separated from the pleasures afforded the petit bourgeoisie. This aging anti-hero comes to terms with his decline despite the fact that, ““He is one of those lucky few to have composed, even if only once in their life, a hit song. And when I say a hit, I mean an enormous hit…I am talking about a global, cosmic, universal hit, bought and frenetically danced to by the inhabitants of the entire earth, from Yemenites to Laplanders.”
The most refreshing thing about Special Envoy is that it’s a novel published in 2016 that feels like it was written for 2017; there are absurd plot twists that might have been pulled from our headlines. Echenoz has a good sense for the way affectation ages. And the medium lends itself to a good romp. The spy novel stays the same, even as the characters change. Like all of his novels, the action moves too quickly, and it’s done in a heartbeat.