(cont'd from previous posts)
Okay, I'll admit: I'm bored with this series of posts on Robbe-Grillet's first novel, The Erasers. It's a muddle. There doesn't seem to be any real point to it. It seems to be circling (or about to make) some crucial point, but unable to take hold of it and express it outright. Everything seems to be at once center and periphery.
So, where are we? (And I promise this will be the last formal post on this particular book).
Formally, Robbe-Grillet deconstructs the closure of the detective genre (and the NOVEL, as well) as an Oedipal atavism. Justice is deferred. (Hermeneutically, this had, I'm sure, implications for the post-war French situation.)
Authority is called into question—both that of the French bureaucrats and criminal investigators and Robbe-Grillet himself qua author.
Substantively, from my writer's point of view (what I've been calling the Ur-story)(and as we all know from reading Robbe-Grillet, only subjective perspectives count), the writer eschews the traditional categories of story and character. There is a metaphysical schema at work here, and all characters and closure serve at its pleasure.
Justice, just as story, eludes us.
What I've been calling Ur-story—an ever-mounting series of critical looks at what I take to be interesting works of literature—has to do with the substance of literature, a thesis about essence. The Erasers (the nouveau roman) wants to be anti-substance. It evades essence by hovering on the surface—mostly the visible surface—of things. Many scholars have remarked its filmic quality. Existence precedes essence—erasing it even. What is is what is presented as it is presented to different POVs.
One of the weaknesses of The Erasers has to do with its disregard of the one of the traditional, indeed essential, categories of fiction. I.e., "character". Superficially (is there anything else, R-G?), Wallas, the protagonist, lacks the ticks/quirks the reader expects to find in her best sleuths—e.g., Holmes's fiddling and cocaine and logic and impatience. (Of course it's a 19th Century residue.) Wallas is somewhat aimless and adrift; but never sharply drawn. He is a bit unsure of himself. He wants to be a detective/inspector/investigator but his forehead doesn't quite match the ideal proportions demanded by his boss's cockamamie phrenological theory. [This, to me felt formulaic, the Oedipal prophecy squeezed in somehow.] He keeps getting lost and circling back on himself. He goes off on frolics of his own. He misses appointments. He bumbles. [Is this characteristically French? I refer of course not to Inspector Clouseau but to their ignominious showing in this year's soccer World Cup.) He remembers another trip to this same city. Yet he persists until his ambition is ultimately defeated by a cruel twist of fate.
And even though we are privileged to be in their presence, to see things from their points of view, the villains seem cartoonish and undeveloped. As do the witnesses and red herring suspects.
There are no relationships. No arcs. No development.
Characters in this novel are never fully described. Their inner selves never revealed. All we get are their glimpses of things.
For R-G, the characters in this novel are mere counters in his metaphysical game/schema. Each character is merely a means to grasping reality—or a piece of it. And there's really no one to put them all together—such as an author. R-G sloughs this duty off on us. He leaves it to the reader. Fine.
But as the ultimate manager of all these POVs, R-G toys with us by interjecting radical doubt. Did Wallas kill Dupont on the first day or the second day? Did the entirety of the novel take place between the time it took Wallas to pull the trigger and the time it took Dupont to fall? Is Wallas actually Andre WS, whom he is said to resemble? etc., etc.
Even if a character figures out, hypothesizes the truth of what happened, verification is simply out of reach.
So, what are we to make of this? Is character defined merely by what of reality is grasped thereby?
Are characters merely apertures, individual windows on reality?
This seems to be the take-away from R-G in this novel.
For R-G, it seems, essence is a fiction. A fraud. A scam. There is only the visual, the spatial. The existent—as we perceive it. The whole supposed 'plot', i.e., to solve the murder, can only come up empty; show itself to be futile. Plot erased. Essence erased. Reality erased. There is only the subjective. Yet, here is where R-G has fallen down. Even though each character has/perceives his own reality from his own vantage point on the world, the subjective traits (attitudes, quirks, ideologies, psychologies, desires, motives) that infest and infect these POVs are not examined. They are disembodied characters. This is a failure of the writer.
The only character who seems to have any sort of desire at all is Wallas. And that for an unobtainable piece of rubber. (And, of course, to please his boss so that he can remain an investigator. Boring.)
In a sense, the anti-realist in R-G has suffered an own goal. Reality is be all and end all; its perception is the only reason (in The Erasers) characters exist. Metaphysics—or at least the schematic concern for such—pervades. Life not so much.
The Aristotelian substance of tragedy—recall R-G structures The Erasers after the acme of Greek tragedy, Oedipus—is the imitation of human action which arouses in the reader the cathartic emotions of pity and terror. By dismantling the dramatic structure of the story, R-G eschews this aim. He shortchanges us where it matters. We pay for an eraser that is not really the one we want and go away ultimately unsatisfied.
The only thing aroused in the reader of The Erasers is confusion. R-G withholds the cathartic effect, merely suggesting the tragedy. He's a tease. Showing only a little ankle, as it were.
I close this, I'm sure, deeply unsatisfactory treatment of The Erasers with a quote from Frank Kermode.
"[R-G] refuses to speak of his 'theory' of the novel; it is the old ones who talk about the need for plot, character, and so forth, who have the theories. And without them one can achieve a new realism, and a narrative in which 'le temps se trouve coupe de la temporalite. Il ne coule plus.' And so we have a novel in which the reader will find none of the gratification to be had from sham temporality, sham causality, falsely certain description, clear story. The new novel 'repeats itself, bisects itself, modifies itself, contradicts itself, without even accumulating enough bulk to constitute a past—and thus a "story," in the traditional sense of the word.' The reader is not offered easy satisfactions, but a challenge to creative co-operation.
When Robbe-Grillet wrote Les Gommes he was undoubtedly refining upon certain sophisticated conventions developed by Simenon in the Maigret novels; but in those the dark side of the plot is eventually given a reasonable explanation, where in Robbe-Grillet the need for this has gone. Rival versions of the same set of facts can co-exist without final reconciliation. The events of the day are the events of the novel, and on the first page we are told that they will 'encroach upon the ideal order, cunningly introducing an occasional inversion, a discrepancy, a warp, in order to accomplish their work.' The time of the novel is not related to any exterior norm of time." The Sense of an Ending, 19-20
Of course, the 'rival versions' are the varying, limited POVs I've been discussing. Compiled, coalesced, filtered, and analyzed, they yield at least some approximation of the truth (of the fiction, of course).
From my point of view, the story of The Erasers only begins in the Epilogue: Wallas has had enough of confronting the reality of death! He wants to withdraw!! Where once he aimed to enlist in the institutionalized grieving mechanism of society (his role in the drama of the genre and his profession) at a rational distance from the victim and the culprit, now (having discovered the fraudulence of the plot/investigation, the culprit's motivation, etc.) he knows that any further investigation of a true murder—of the genuine death—can only lead him to discover himself. His own identity, his complicity, his culpability is only at the end thrown into issue. And, finally, he knows that he's inadequate to the task (by one square centimeter of forebrain, apparently).
The low-brow should avoid this book. The middle-brow may choose to investigate; they may not. The high-brow will fawn at the pyrotechnics. Writers should appreciate what the author has attempted, what he has accomplished and what he has not, and what he has had to sacrifice to get there.
[I end with a possibility the text does not seem to allow: I had thought (even hoped) that "eraser" was another name for what the Harvey Keitel character did in the American remake of the French film Nikita (i.e., Point of No Return)(the Jean Reno role in the original) and reprised gustily in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction: cleaners, if you will, whose job it is to erase all traces and evidence of the crime/accident/mess. I did not get that sense from the text, however. Of course, it might be there and I just missed it.]