Jean Echenoz is one of contemporary literature's rare graceful magicians. While every good novelist ventures a modicum of risk, Echenoz risks everything in his fiction, gambling on the prodigious blandishments of his voice to lure his readers into a maze of improbabilities and preposterous happenings. He might easily be located in the posthuman environs of Michel Houellebecq, haruki Murakami, and the late Jean-Patrick Manchette, though his imaginative range suggests that, in a different period, he might display the ungovernable exuberance of a Rabelais.
Ours is not an age of exuberance, except for those who have not yet heard the bad news. Echenoz is more likely to bring to mind Goya's black paintings or Jan Potocki's The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. His prose carries a busy pentimento of recent voices: Carson McCullers, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Virginia Woolf, Severo Sarduy, Emmanuel Carrière, Boris Vian. His characters are often marginal to the point of near nonexistence, Beckett's clochards with backstories, Conrad's adventurers in a shabbier key. They are blessed with luck, cursed with memory.
Thanks to dazzling translations by Mark Polizzotti (author of the fiercely attacked and ferociously honest André Breton biography Revolution of the Mind), we now have much of Echenoz's work available in English. His fidelity to this work could not be bettered. Easy to read, this former child psychologist and winner of the Prix Goncourt in 1999 is not at all easy to understand, and retaining both ease and difficultyóas Polizzotti has doneóis surely the elusive marrow of translation. If it's true that photography released painting from naturalism, Echenoz prompts the hardly new thought that film has, or ought to have, liberated the novel from its more plodding expository chores. While his technique mimics film's sleight-of-hand by cutting across time lines, points of view, and locations, he also features ample doses of allegory, a strong resemblance to fables and fairy tales, and anthropomorphisms that could resonate only in a linguistic venue. He indicates, at every point, something beyond documentary reality and paints a world where coincidence and the dream state regularly trump logic and verisimilitude.
Like Manchette, Echenoz cannibalizes the roman policier and refashions its bones into elaborately unnatural skeletons. Big Blondes turns the detective story on its ear; rather than a sequence of clues that leads to a guilty person, the guilty person dispatches a series of detectives. Moreoever, she gets away with it and, in the process, reforms herself. I'm Gone twists the key conceit of Greene's The Third Man into a narrative pretzel, simultaneously revealing and concealing its implausible secret.
Like Houellebecq, Echenoz endows a parade of abject figures with metaphysical and moral resonance; he makes unlikely people vessels of nuanced introspection, quixotic willfulness, and weirdly fastidious sensibility. He is neither as overtly bleak nor as complacently provocative as the writers he most resemblesóManchette, certainly, Houellebecq, and in a different sense Marguerite Duras and Robbe-Grilletówhose approach is an ostensibly enlightened sadism toward the reader: that is, a glacial view of human activity as if observed through night-vision goggles or powerful binoculars. At the same time, his novels traverse the same atomized and fate-shrunk territory in which Manchette's and Houellebecq's characters so often encounter the inevitable as the secret side of chance.
A favorite technique in Echenoz's work is what might be called perpendicular, rather than parallel, narratives. Cherokee, Double Jeopardy, I'm Gone, Big Blondes, and Chopin's Move all commence by splitting into separate, closely parallel stories, then split further, like blobs of mercury, into subnarratives that intersect them. Double Jeopardy announces its method in its opening paragraph: Thirty years earlier, two men had been in love with Nicole Fischer. The stranger she'd preferred to both of them, a fighter pilot by trade, had had time neither to marry her nor to bail out of his spinning prototype, which slammed into the Haute-Saône under the noonday sun of May. Blonde and baptized Justine three months later, the fruit of his labors would thus bear her mother's name. The latter, her mourning over, her daughter born, conceived the idea of seeing her former suitors, Jean-François Pons and Charles Pontiac; she would have liked to know how they were getting on without her. But . . . they had loved her so much that their lives had been shattered. . . . Pons and Pontiac had distanced themselves, first from each other, then from the outside world.
A paradox runs through Double Jeopardy: Thirty years is a long time; for the emotions, it's no time at all. As that gulf of time gets filled inóPons has ended up managing a South Asian plantation, where an evidently characteristic folie de grandeur persuades him to foment a worker's revolt; Pontiac has become a grubby vagrant among the derelicts and dregs of the Paris subway system and the city's blighted postindustrial moonscapesóa gun-running venture draws the two men, and Nicole Fischer, back into proximity. The plot is thickened, so to speak, by a mutiny aboard a freighter, the intervention of rival weapons buyers, a kidnapping, a massacre, and a continual shifting of geographies and points of view. Everything the novel opens with becomes relevant to the unfolding plot, including Justine. Even the dead pilot's body turns up in a Burmese marsh.
Picaresque echoes of Richardson and Fielding, the ridiculously crammed eventfulness of Pamela and the hilarious misanthropy of Jonathan Wild exquisitely circumscribed within a couple hundred pages and spliced to the rhythms of a technologically saturated world, direct us back to the first true effulgence of the novel form, when it was a brazenly artificial construction. We don't have to suspend disbelief, since Echenoz doesn't ask us to believe anything. Hallucination is his métier. Big Blondes combines the real absurdities of contemporary mass mediaóa TV producer obsessed by typologies of "blondness" and forgotten blondes who were "famous for fifteen minutes"ówith utterly bogus, Shakespearean tropes of disguise, the interventions of a foot-tall incubus lodged on its heroine's shoulder, an evil Indian doctor, a Bombay smuggling operation involving radioactive materials sewn into horses' stomachs. We may not be able to believe these things, but Echenoz compels us to picture them in microscopic detail. In I'm Gone, a signature narrative swerve whisks the story from Paris to an icebreaker, then a dogsled expedition in the Arctic; dense clouds of mosquitoes above the timberline, which tilt against any guess of ours about what that frozen region is like, cement the feeling that it's true to life. Maybe not real life, but something like it.
Cartesianism, according to Leibniz, reflects that "man is perpetually created corrupt and erring." Echenoz is an equivocal Cartesian on both points; the implied absence of free will is at least a motif and probably a conviction. Actions produce paradoxically unwilled outcomes, owing to fateful lacunae in his characters' knowledge, the presence of superior force and overriding systems, and the failure of emotions to apprehend the reality that produces them. At the same time, his protagonists experience catharsis, change, modification of habits; whether they are existentially "free" or not is a matter of some doubt.
Piano, Echenoz's most recently translated work, raises this question in a perplexing context, since two-thirds of the novel takes place in the afterlife. The afterlife has rigid, if arbitrary, rules, miraculous procedures, and the lowering prospect of eternity. Max Delmarc, a renowned concert pianist, has stage fright verging on hysteria and an alcohol problem kept in check by an assistant named Bernie, who often has to shove him through the concert-hall curtains to propel him toward the piano.
Max complicates and contradicts the normative Echenoz hero in several unexpected ways. Famous in a limited realm, he has an identity considerably more distinct than the novelist's usual evanescent, middle-aged scam artists and subterraneans; unlike the serial monogamists encountered in Echenoz's other books, Max has remained pathetically faithful to the memory of Rose, a woman he failed to approach years earlier, who then disappeared, and who, he learned, was as interested in him as he was in her. The woman we assume is his wife turns out to be his sister. Another woman who reminds him of Rose, despite a marked absence of any resemblance, proves unavailable. And before he can find the long-missing Rose or attract his new infatuation, Max is murdered by a street tough in the course of a meaningless robbery.
The end of Max's life is only the beginning of his story. But fans of Alice Sebold will find nothing for them in Echenoz's version of the afterlife, which is far from heaven and more like a tuberculosis sanitarium, where the violently killed are patched up by plastic surgeons and looked after by dead celebrities like Peggy Lee and Dean Martinówho, like the rest of the dead, are obliged to take new identities and abandon their previous line of work:
"What I mean is," Béliard specified, "you're going to have to change professions. That's how it is when you come here. It's not my decision, you understand, the same rules apply to everyone."
"But what do you expect me to do?" worried Max. "I don't know how to do anything else."
"We'll find you something," said Béliard. "We find solutions for everyone. Take Peggy, for instance. She had to change jobs, too. She needed to find another trade. So fine, she chose health care, and she's not doing too poorly. Besides, she has the right physiqueóthough no matter what we do, she can't quite rid herself of her little movie-star habits. She gets like that now and again, and sometimes we have to take her down a peg."
Posthumous existence conspicuously lacks a deity. After a brief recovery period in the clinic, the dead get sent for eternity to one of two places (except for a few resident celebrities who "have connections"): an Edenic but potentially tedious pastoral landscape, or else the "urban zone," indistinguishable from contemporary Paris. A person's destination has nothing to do with the weighing of vices against virtues, is in fact arbitrary, determined by quotas; either option, however, seems more than slightly punitive. Max, consigned to the urban zone, stripped of his former face and identity, has to work as a bartender in a sleazy hotel lounge.
Besides having Rose as his own spectral Beatrice, the Dantean Max has two Virgils: in life, the affable Bernie; in death, the ascerbic, disagreeable Béliard. Living forever with no discernible purpose is its own form of hell (vide Karel Capek's The Makropoulos Secret), monotonous in its bland torments. It appears an uncanny dispensation that after much heated argument, Béliard allows Max to break both cardinal rules of post-living: to make no contact with people who knew him pre-mortem and to avoid any trace of his former profession. In fact, the strictures governing things turn out strangely permeable, as Béliard himself, dispatched from the clinic to locate an escapee from the alternative afterlife of the Edenic, endless park, starts drinking heavily and becoming unhinged in Paris, apparently forgetting his mission and letting himself go to seed.
But there is a much more indelible form of hell revealed to Max after his successful rebellion against what turn out to be only superficial constraints. It is deeply horrible because it seems precisely calibrated, not to any evil Max did in life, but to a failure of nerve, a failure to seize a chance at happiness. This implies something far worse than God inherent in the human, even posthuman, condition. Echenoz's endings usually reflect a sense of futility. Even when everything else works out, the most important thing remains out of reach. A person's life returns him to his originary flaw, possibly wiser and more resigned but intractably fucked up.
Dalkey Archive is publishing Polizzotti's translation of Echenoz's early novel Lac, retitled Chopin's Move, which is rather like a black-and-white silent movie to Piano's Technicolor talkie: Chopin's Move is a persiflage of the cold war's gritty friction between two Europes, while Piano evokes the ebulliently empty hell of universal capitalism. The English title refers to a life-size chess set on the grounds of the Parc Palace du Lac, a resort hotel outside Parisófiguratively the deer park of royal times, or the somnambulist palace of Last Year at Marienbad, and a prototype for Piano's tediously well-manicured version of "heaven."
The title further indicates protagonist Franck Chopin's role as a pawn in a complicated game. And, as Echenoz's novels not only reference music extensively but give particular composers and pieces of music considerable symbolic importance (Cherokee is structured in one large whorl around the loan and return of a recording of Lester Young's "Cherokee"), the name makes a playful nod to the Polish composer (a statue of whom causes phobic reactions in Piano's Max).
Chopin, first in a long line of Echenoz heroes conceived in the bowels of a T.S. Eliot poem, is fiftyish, attractive, hapless, desperate. Highly skilled as an espionage technician, libidinally restless, Sartre's Roquentin recast as a reluctant "man of action," in spite of an essential inertia and passivity: Things happen to him, he's compelled to react, and love (if that's what it is) impels him to put himself in harm's way. Trappings of a spy novel flitter in and out of visibility. There are ridiculous, steroidal bodyguards, defectors, double agents. Sinister figures high in the food chain, seemingly opposed, actually work for the same people. A landscape watercolorist whose paintings are clues. None of this resembles a John le Carré novel. Echenoz's language deflates the idioms of genre: "He had immediately been trained in the use of microdots and blank carbon, dead drops, the art of losing tails, and all the rest of that crap."
Through a telescoping effect, as well as various surreal devices, Echenoz situates his preoccupations somewhere beyond plot, which in any event operates like George Bernard Shaw's famous sugarcoating to make the medicine go down. Quotidian realism is jettisoned within a chapter or two, when a Queneau-like playfulness takes over. Chopin, an eminent dipterologist, is shown attaching tiny microphones to the thoraxes of flies, which he then releases in the suite of a certain Vital Veber, "general secretary" of some murky Eastern-bloc bureau: a nebulosity within a nebulosity, gray on gray, whose solitary noises Chopin monitors by means of his flies. The flies have their own affectionately rendered personalities. For that matter, so do inert objects, cars, weather systems, clocksómost things Echenoz describes have nearly as much personality as his human characters.
The animation of insentient or nonhuman entities produces an effect of cacophony and distraction. Objects wheeze, growl, sputter, weep, and complicate space. They exude sadness, joy, disappointment. Objects have needs, hopes, and die a thousand deaths. Observed by human subjects, they acquire a kind of anthropomorphic autonomy that defies the whole idea of actual subjectivity. Chopin has no psychology; the insensible objects around him fairly gurgle with a purposive inner life.
Outside the light precipitation continued. Droplets of rain hunched on the glass, sparse and immobile. They had to band together, get unionized in one fat drop before they could hurtle gaily down the windshield, on whose verso, inside the car, droplets of fog clustered toward the same end. . . . having known only the acid universe of sawdust, cold, and cutting slabs, with no prospects other than to contain blood-stained rags and knives its whole object-life long, this trunk was suddenly facing a warm and miraculous retirement, stuffed with comfortable winter clothing, furs and cashmere, angora, and now it was being carried on men's backs toward the heights of Rue de Rome.
The material world holds its own "against" the personalities passing through it. Events that would occasion great dramatic fanfare in a conventional story occur matter-of-factly, often stimulating zero effect in the people they happen to. Echenoz's people greet catastrophe as if they'd been expecting it and feel a little peeved that it's taken so long to get there. The world, he implies, is too full, too crowded with assertive objects, animals, sidewalks, cars, buildingsóit's hard for any person to truly matter, even to himself.
Embedded in the dire business of Chopin's Move is a contrary narrativeóthis is also true of Cherokee, Double Jeopardy, I'm Gone, and Piano, in different degrees of explicitness. The convolutions of these novels elasticate the temporal distance between a wish and its ruin (or, more rarely, gratification) in the manner of an LSD trip. The sediment of past time, thick and opaque, fills cracks in the present as water colonizes a slow-sinking liner. Echenoz tends to return to the place where he started. But it's never quite the same place. The borrowed vinyl in Cherokee returns at last in the form of a tape recording. The narrative, spun from an ancient, murderous antagonism between the detective hero, George Chave, and his insane cousin Fred, ultimately delivers the two men to a state of mutual accommodation, after an incredible series of betrayals, abductions, and homicides. This new equilibrium, however, has a kind of winking insincerity, as if the whole comedy could start over on the absent next page.
For Echenoz, space is as malleable as time. Cherokee ranges all over Paris and its suburbs, yet Chave's focus is monocular and infallible, to the extent that the city, for all Echenoz's fabulous descriptions, begins to resemble a map strewn with arrows. Spaces between him and the objects of his quest become compressed, as if the sprawling city consisted of four or five buildings and a dozen people. Similarly, the characters in Big Blondes streak back and forth between France and Australia, Australia and India, in minuscule narrative space; Double Jeopardy flashes between Burma and Paris and points between as if space were made of the latex harvested on Pons's plantation. In Piano, Max's expulsion from the clinic causes him to awaken, inexplicably, on a hydrofoil in the Amazon.
The author is concerned less with logic than with the evocation of a restive, unassuageable longing. His protagonists carry an impossible burden of emotion through minefields of intrigue and spurts of violence. This yearning immunizes them against more urgent misfortunes. In effect, it's their only real misfortune.
Each novel casts desire for someone lost and unregained, someone unattainable, in different ways. As in more classical genre works by Raymond Chandler or Cornell Woolrich, desire occupies space between actions that "advance the story," and the desired object is usually entwined in the mystery the hero tries to solve. But in Echenoz the mystery bears all the markings of the dream, a cloaca of violent fantasies produced by desire itself. The frantic succession of events is a garnish metastasized into fantastically twisted, varicolored forms, a prose coral reef, a labyrinth with nothing at its center but a thwarted wish. Echenoz is that inimitable stripe of literary juggler who shows us a wholly different way of thinking about ourselves and our predicament, a juggler of verbal knives who, if not for his preternatural grace, could easily slice his arm off while displaying a hypnotic and arguably pointless skill. I say "arguably" because the vastly entertaining is often mistaken for pointlessness.
Gary Indiana is the author of six novels and four books of nonfiction. He currently produces Cabaret RAF every month at Passerby in New York City and is completing his first feature film, an adaptation of August Strindberg's Miss Julie.