07 July 2010

Ur-Story: A Shot in the Dark—Part Sex

(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.]


Dan Green said...

"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."

Why should they be, exactly? Is this the novelist's job, to "examine"? What would such an examination look like?

I'm confused about your use of the term "metaphysical." If "Reality is be all and end all," doesn't that exclude metaphysics?

Jim H. said...

Thanks for your careful read, Dan. Always appreciated.

I take your point: 'developed' might be a more felicitous term than 'examined'. Development is a sort of examination. And, yes, character development is the novelist's job. That's where the 'pity' part of the Aristotelian analysis comes about.

My take on "The Erasers" is that R-G refuses to give us the solution (the closure, the reality) of the story. He gives us glimpses of the facts through the eyes of the 'characters' (such as they are). Limited, subjective glimpses. To me, that is the sole function of characters in this text—to be apertures, as I said, on reality. It is up to the reader to put the various pieces of the picture together—to do the metaphysics, to construct the reality. Something R-G refuses to do.

Jim H.

Dan Green said...

I don't want to be overly contentious, but when you say "character development is the novelist's job," are you taking that out of a novelist's job description handbook or something? Who says? Can't a novelist deliberately refuse character development and still be a novelist?

I guess it's still unclear to me how presenting or receiving an incomplete or "limited" depiction of reality amounts to a metaphysics. Don't we all have an incomplete or limited perspective on "facts" already?

Frances Madeson said...

Call 555-4444! I'm verklempt; (moan, growl, other-worldly animal sound) it actually hurts how brilliant he is, like butter. So, yeah, re: content and prescience...

Did you ever read Wells' The Croquet Player? Written in 1936, it anticipates the zeitgeist in which the third Reich took root, while attempting almost epidemiologically to nail down in language (see why I love him already?) something otherwise amorphous—the process by which the infection of fear spreads from human carrier to human.

Yeah, I'm reading his night mind, but that was the effect RG was going for (not with a focus on human emotions but reflection on events, the motivations for the baby-steps people actually took on their streets, in their shops and homes and civic institutions—not so much what did you do (or not do) in the war, daddy?, but why?), but all the while dissecting events of the crime, writ-- relative to the magnitude of the Holocaust--microscopically small, in retrospect. So, just the way he's fooling around with the lenses makes me know I'm going to spend the rest of my life honoring and praising him whenever I get the chance. He's an innovator, a really good one, too. That's rare and precious.

A child of engineers, it's like he custom-built a bicycle where you have to peddle forward in order to to go backward. And did it with a deceiving sense of cool, all the while his whole head was on fire from what he had personally witnessed and participated in, knowledge that demanded to be integrated into a societal whole, not furtively stowed in an off-site warehouse named “Dr. Evil's Phantasmagoria and Storage—U Pay Less.”

You know that book Drawing on the Right Side of Your Brain? Think of Les Gommes as an early and elaborate exercise for increasing right brain capability, but with this one qualification: not as a hobbyist's primer, as a planetary survival guide.

I have Leni Yahil's book The Holocaust: the Fate of European Jewry on my shelf: it's an excellent comprehensive chronological guide to events. But the Holocaust didn't happen to people chronologically or linearly. That's a structure, an organizing device, that can only be imposed by historians after the fact.

What Robbe-Grillet created was a forward-looking map to the truer way humans experienced the events—right? When you see people leaving these behavioral breadcrumbs right out in the open where everyone can see them, you should recognize it as the criminal behavior it is, and, if possible, take appropriate actions while you still are alive, unmaimed, vigorous and able, very able, in fact, especially if you join with others. And lo and behold--and it is something glorious worth beholding--these are the behaviors you cataloged above so very like a forward-thinking archivist or brilliant-fucking lawyer or insanely talented storyteller.

Jim H. said...

Dan first:

You say "Can't a novelist deliberately refuse character development and still be a novelist?" Um, yes??? but not necessarily a very good one, or necessarily an interesting one. Call me a humanist. (I'm sure there must be counter-examples, but they elude my grasp presently. And let's leave room to suggest that a given piece of prose may be "art" but not necessarily a "novel", a point I've suggested in my essay.)

Now to Dan's second point:

Reading The Erasers puts the reader in the situation of having to determine what is and isn't real (as, as I indicated, delimited by the text). That's fundamentally a metaphysical exercise.

Take the statement "Dupont is Wallas's long-lost father." Is it true or false?

With a classic author, the answer could be determined by resort to the text. That is to say, the writer would have indicated (intimated) as much (somehow) in the text. This is what I will call the "realist", or even Platonic, position. On this view, the truth or falsity of the statement (or rather the conditions for its being true or not) is out there—or in there, as the case may be.

But R-G is not such a classic author.

I have indicated that I believe R-G takes an anti-realist tack. That Dupont is Wallas's long-lost father is true only if I argue as such. And to the contrary as well. It is never clear from the text, tho' it is suggested. It seems that a careful reader could argue it as either true or not true, depending on what evidence she marshalls. The point being, the fact of the matter is that its truth is neither out nor in there—it is indeterminate and frankly indeterminable. As part of his disappearing author trick, R-G does not write the answer in the text. We readers make the statement true or not by virtue of our reading, my belief or my opinion or my argument is as good (conceivably) as anyone else's. (This is also known as the 'constructivist' position.)

I don't know if I've satisfactorily answered your point, but I worry I'm tangling with "Socrates" here and that you'll come back again with yet another "I don't understand.' I don't take it as contentious; I take it as the sort of questioning that puts me to clarification. As of this post, I've not abandoned my point of view: by bowing out, R-G puts us to a metaphysical exercise in trying to get a handle on this book.

Thanks for taking the time to read my rambling posts and ask probing, pointed questions. I'm truly flattered.

Jim H.

Jim H. said...


Yes, yes, and yes.

Who ARE you? Your contribution to the comments on my feeble blogging efforts are humbling.

Thank you for an inspiring historical gloss on this gnarly text.

'fooling around with lenses'
'an innovator, a really good one, too. That's rare and precious.'
'a forward-looking map to the truer way humans experienced the events'
'these behavioral breadcrumbs'

You've taken the reading to a breadth I can't say I imagined, being tethered so closely to the solid ground of the text. I loved the play on words gommes as is 'gumshoe'— (Hey! maybe THAT's the whole problem: (con-)textual myopia!!)

For readers like you and Dan, I'm grateful. Thought-provoking. Challenging. Insightful.

There are, I suspect, depths of The Erasers I've yet to plumb.

Jim H.