30 June 2010

Ur-Story: A Shot in the Dark—το πεμπτημόριον

(cont'd from previous posts)

Existence precedes essence. All is subjectivity. Reality is fragmented. Open is good; closed fascist. We are all complicit. Crimes are not necessarily crimes. Investigations prove nothing. Authority is suspect. There is no truth. Irony controls our destinies. Or, ironically, doesn't. Humans fail to connect; communication is impossible at the speed of life. All leading to tragic results. It's all on you. So, it's all on you.

An ironic message indeed from a novelist, someone whose business—at least ostensibly—is language and story. To say the least.

But it's not simply ironic. "Screw you guys," Robbe-Grillet seems to be hissing from behind the scrim of his experimental novel The Erasers. "I'm not going to do the work for you. I'll put it out there. I'll give you the pieces. I'll show you what everybody's thinking. But you've got to put the picture together for yourself. If you care."

So, it's all on me: why should I care?

And that's the main question raised by Robbe-Grillet's The Erasers: Why should the reader care?

This isn't about me. Or is it? Robbe-Grillet seems to intimate it is. And he wants me to figure out how and why.

There has to be a difference between a literary work of art (something not necessarily equivalent to a novel) and a dream. There must be some criteria to decide whether something is indeed a novel or a poem or whether it is merely the flow of words and thoughts—however loosely organized around plot or story or character or theme or image, however beautiful—of someone who perhaps should take his problems to a shrink, that is to say, of someone who wants his readers to analyze what he's saying but doesn't necessarily know himself what he wants to say. Or at least if he does he isn't telling.

Or does there?

What if the reader doesn't care to play peek-a-boo with the writer? What if a fine game of spot the allusion is wasted on me? What if the reader doesn't wish to be, say, a Joseph or a Daniel or a Tarot reader or a Freud or a Jung? What then?

What then? We ignore R-G and his feint at a detective book, or at least put it down. And many have.

We've come this far so let's assume, then, there is some critical difference. After all, The Erasers looks like a novel. It reads like a novel, at least on the surface. It has a prologue, an epilogue, and chapters. It was published by an established, though somewhat avant garde, house. On its cover it calls itself 'A Novel.' It has been translated—ably, I assume—by a noted and reputable translator. Hell, as far as I can tell, it's still in print. The academic critical enterprise, the elites, have told us for at least the last half century that R-G's output is worthy of our interest; some have even called The Erasers a modern masterpiece. And, in high French modernist style, it comes with its own explanatory theoretical framework to boot.

Let's assume we should care, or at least pretend we do. Let's assume that in writing this novel R-G has committed to something other than 'It's all nebulous; make of it what you will. Life is meaningless anyway, wide open. An ironic, circular destiny mocks our every move." What is it?

He has committed to a sort of literary Rohrshach, an ink blot, that carries whatever meaning we care to bring to it. [The image of a mirror might work as well here—though, as we shall see, it must of needs be a cracked one.] The book, at least in theory, rewards the effort brought to interpretation.

On the surface, R-G has freighted his story with the structural trappings of the detective story. Just below that surface (that skin), however, he has buried the tragic, mythic structure (the bones) of the ill-fated story of Oedipus. And, as many critics have noted, he has drawn on the nature of chance by alluding throughout to images from the Tarot deck.

This is the modernist synthesis pioneered by Joyce in Ulysses: the mythic underpinnings of the everyday. (Full disclosure: I am not averse to this general ploy. My own as-yet-unagented, unpublished novel, EULOGY, draws for its deep structure on the Orpheus myth, quite possibly the oldest extant Western expression of human myth.)

Yet R-G has blasted apart the detective story and mangled the Oedipus story; he teases us with Tarot: there is one solution, there are many; there is one meaning, there are many; chance guides our fates, our destinies are determined—if not by (terrorist) plots then by the workings of our unconscious, if not by bureaucratic politics then by the circularity of history. Yet, if everything is implied, nothing is.

With The Erasers, then, theme, plot, and structure are somehow there, somewhat unified. Literarily, though, that is not yet content. That is not yet substance. That is not yet essence. Not yet Ur-story.

Structural connections do not a novel make. Neither do thematic contrivances nor parodies of plots.

Again we ask, why play the game?

Just because you can take something apart, breaking it down into elemental units, and put it together again in a new way doesn't mean you comprehend the coherence of the whole you've destroyed.

The new synthesis—le nouveau roman—is no synthesis at all. It just is this fragmentation. It just is these contradictions, albeit tricked out in some sort of theoretical unity.

Abdicating authorial responsibility, throwing up your hands and walking away—however artfully—does not seem to be a helpful gesture. It seems almost bureaucratic. Insouciant.

Robbe-Grillet's authorial laissez faire here—challenging the old order in the manner of a petulant child without either comprehending the function of "story" within the novel or, if he does (and there's no evidence R-G does), compensating for its loss—is frustrating for the reader. Or at least me. And, after all, I'm the one who counts—at least theoretically.

When there is a crime, I want there to be punishment. Guilt. Retribution. Cause and effect. Rationality. Plot. That does not make me a fascist. Openness, meaninglessness, is not a necessary novelistic synechdoche for freedom.

Anyway, there's none of that here, not even of Wallas when he kills Dupont. Maybe that's all a cliche, and R-G is too high-handed to condescend to such. But saying that a plot in a novel is a cliche is like saying a nose on a face is a cliche—wait, didn't Picasso have something to say about that?

Certainly, it might pass as "art" or make for a good MFA thesis. But I'm not sure that's enough.

(to be continued)


BDR said...

Bump thanks!

Frances Madeson said...

Reading this ultra insanely brilliant post (I don't have time right now to count the ways) is like diving in hyper-oxygenated waters, Jim. The mask is cracking! You give double meaning to the concept of double-entendre even as you do justice, JUSTICE, to Robbe-Grillet's medium. I'm going crazy in admiration of your skillful fan dance. And you make it look so natural, like a strolling, not strutting, peacock.

I actually feel sorry for everyone not living this with WoW readers in real time. Call me a softie, I don't think that's an extreme or even particularly effusive statement.