At least superficially, this 1995 novel (in an excellent translation by Mark Polizzotti) involves the herculean effort by a made-for-TV studio, Stochastic Films, to recruit an aging minor celebrity/singer, Gloria Stella (aka Gloire Abgrall) for a "where-are-they-now" series, Tall Blondes (aka Big Blondes). Gloire, living a life resembling a witness protection program, resists this intrusion by resorting to violence and flight, taking the story from Paris to Sydney to Bombay, and elsewhere. In pursuit of its prey, Stochastic blackmails police, employs a string of private investigators of increasing competence and cost, and collaborates with an international crime syndicate. Gloire veers in and out of mental stability, evidenced by sudden apparitions and disappearances of an homunculus adviser, Beliard, who, if there is any justice in the world, will be played by a miniaturized David Sedaris in the movie version. The result, in usual Echenoz fashion, is a fun and wild ride, but there is more to it than that.
Echenoz is capable of brilliant, often hilarious description. He employes this talent more modestly in Big Blondes than in the even wilder and quirkier Cherokee. Big Blondes also has more satiric ambition than "Cherokee." Echenoz captures perfectly French male obsessions and attitudes that somehow manages to be incredibly sexist and, at the same time, oddly feminist. He explores the idea of beauty as power, but, more importantly, the struggle for control over female power and the power of celebrity. Big Blondes would be mostly a humorous, light social satire were it not so prescient and trenchant: Big Blondes was published in French in 1995, in English translation in 1997, and Princess Diana died in August 1997, a death (and life) that, perhaps more powerfully than any other, illustrates the themes of power and control, obsession with beauty and celebrity, that Echenoz pursues.
Rather than end on a morbid note--since Big Blondes is mostly just fun--I leave you with a few exemplary descriptive passages that provide the flavor of Jean Echenoz's talent. Who, but Echenoz, would write: "A very nervous young lawyer appeared, short and austere as a printed form, who soberly requested that Gloire follow him to the padded door of his office, but who, once the latter was shut, began dancing frenetically around the young woman, throwing his head back and beating the air with his arms, all the while exclaiming that it had been so long, that he was so happy, that she hadn't changed a bit." Or refer to ice cubes as the "rhythm section" of a gin and tonic? Or would, so very accurately and artfully, observe "...the hospitalized woman's husband set the tray with morning tea on a low table and drew back the curtains. Sliding together along the curtain rods, the metal rings rang zing zing, to the left, to the right, like a knife being sharpened." Or describe a man Gloire meets in India as "...a perfumed salesman, an engineer specializing in brakes--a largely neglected device in these latitudes where they prefer the horn, and thus a huge potential market." Or of the residents of a nursing home: "In their chairs of dirty plastic wire over rust-speckled tubing, toothless extroverts rocked dangerously, while other sang in chorus."
Echenoz's writing is entertainingly brilliant. He deserves all the comparisons reviewers have made to the great writers, especially Nabokov. Highly recommended.