21 June 2010

Ur-Story: A Shot in the Dark—Part the Third

(cont'd from previous posts)

[Major Spoiler Alert] All you need to know about The Erasers by Alain Robbe-Grillet can be summed up in the following: Inspector Wallas kills Professor Daniel Dupont in a fit of jealous rage once he, Wallas, discovers that Dupont is having an affair with his (Dupont's) near-deaf maid, only to realize too late—that is, only after Wallas has consummated his love for the maid—that Dupont is his long, lost father and that the maid is really his mother. Wallas spends practically the entire novel wandering the streets of the town trying to imagine plausible scenaria that might explain the killing to the local police and the federal ministry for which he works and trying to cover up his shame. Ultimately, he plucks his eyes out and jumps into the river and drowns.

Full stop.

How, you might ask (especially if you've read or 're-read' the book), does this cockamamie synopsis even remotely sum up the novel?

Fair question.

Robbe-Grillet attempted to create an art form that is radically open. As the author he refuses to provide the reader with a clean solution—murder, culprit, motive, investigation, solution, etc.—or a clear picture of the objective reality of the world of the novel he has created.

As a result of this abdication, any interpretation, any hypothesis as to what may or may not have happened, is (or at least should be) equally justified—however facacta. But that simply isn't the case.

The text is the limit case. Any plausible hypothesis, or interpretation, must answer to the evidence in the text, the limits of which were prescribed, managed (manged?) by the author. The author is not dead so much as he's playin' 'possum, as folks say down here in the sunny South.

This author, Robbe-Grillet, seems to have an overarching metaphysical concern here: how might reality be grasped? Or, how is it that reality might be missed? And this concern points us to one of the weaknesses of the novel.

The detective novel is traditionally considered the acme of a certain form of "realism"—grit, noir, street, etc.

R-G undermines this conception. Reality—what happened, who did it, how, etc.—to the extent it can be known is not known other than subjectively. All is subjectivity. Realism is a sham. The traditional, realistic detective novel is an artifice. The wrapping-up, the tying up of loose ends, is an authorial intervention. Too pat.

What happens, R-G asks, when radical doubt is the order of the day? When the reality of the realistic novel has been shown to be constructed?

The whole premise of the investigation (and thus the novel and thus the genre) is that a murder has been committed. In The Erasers, this premise is called into question, subverted, transgressed, sent up—deconstructed as it were. And only once it becomes clear (to the reader at least) that the premise has been undercut, a murder, or at least a killing, does indeed occur.

In The Erasers, I think it is fair to say, reality is beyond the human condition to grasp. Laurent, the local police commissioner, surmises the truth (to wit: "If the murderer's trail has not been picked up, it is because Daniel Dupont has not been murdered; yet it is impossible to reconstruct his suicide in any coherent way....Laurent rubs his hands together faster....And what if Dupont weren't dead?" (237)), but can do nothing about it sitting at his desk. He tries but fails to communicate his revelation to Wallas. And this has, as we all know, tragic consequences.

(to be cont'd)


Frances Madeson said...

Jim, Jim, Jim,
Tweak-time or Clouseau but no cigar. Euripides not Sophocles, Hecuba not Oedipus Rex. Look to your surfaces, your architexture. Wallas buys the erasers on the Place de la Prefecture, where the courthouse is. You know what we facacta Jews like to say—“Justice, justice, you shall pursue!” (Deut. 16:18-20)

Jim H. said...

Thanks for the comment.

Your Hecuba reference eludes me, I'm afraid. The Oedipus structure, I thought, was relatively non-controversial. E.g., http://www.jstor.org/pss/4149301

and http://books.google.com/books?id=fFpqQsj6__UC&pg=PA4&lpg=PA4&dq=robbe-grillet+erasers+oedipus&source=bl&ots=4pY1YgQ8BH&sig=pz_WxdxrBK0lpCaZGw0KdZAbRo4&hl=en&ei=mO0gTMv4G4Wdlgejr-XCAQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=10&ved=0CEkQ6AEwCQ#v=onepage&q=robbe-grillet%20erasers%20oedipus&f=false

Notwithstanding, I'll give it a look tho' I fear I'll be as misguided as poor Wallas.

But I digress.

Btw: looked like you were having enough fun on you own over at 3QD. Besides, what makes you think I wasn't ...

Jim H.

Frances Madeson said...

I was out at Russ & Daughters picking up a rasher of those red schmaltz-herrings Roland Barthes used to enjoy snacking on when he visited the Lower East Side, so, sorry about my delayed rejoinder.

I'm genuinely glad you're at least willing to entertain moving beyond schematics. I learned that sad lesson the hard and humiliating way with Philip Roth's latest submission, The Humbling. Attempting its defense, I no sooner said strophe then it was catastrophe. In a hot minute, Steven hauled me out of the pagoda by the scruff of my neck to the doghouse and rubbed my nose in my false lead, but good. And that was after a half a day of sweating bullets to come up with it in the first place. Please learn from my error so it shall not have been in vain.

As you suggest, it's the nature of the mercantile, but still human, exchange Wallas has with the young stationery shop shopgirl who manages to sell him the faulty eraser that is the key, not the traces of letters still inscribed from the Oedipus logo. Not that names and etymologies don't matter, they do—Cafe Allies for one, which places the reader in a post-WWII mise en scene and Daniel Dupont's, for another. Reading backwards from my hypothesis, that Hecuba is the mother of Paris is a fun clue; but it's that Hecuba so easily gulls Polymester with her feminine charms, just as the young, pretty shopgirl does to Wallas, that is key-er.