Frank Kermode summarizes Alain Robbe-Grillet’s experimental novel, In the Labyrinth, in his The Sense of an Ending:

“the soldier who is the central figure only slowly emerges (in so far as he does emerge) from other things, the objects described with equal objectivity, such as the mysterious packet he carries (why is it mysterious? that is a conventional expectation, to be defeated later) or a street, or wallpaper. The soldier has a mission; as you expect to hear about it you are given minute descriptions—of snow on windowsills, of polish on a boot, of the blurred rings left by glasses on a wooden tabletop. There is an unhelpful child, who comes in again and again, confusing one about one’s way, asking questions. There is a woman who gives the soldier food, and a photograph mysteriously (why?) related to the soldier himself and what he is doing. It seems he has arrived at the writing with an eraser. The story ends where it began, within the immediate perceptual field or a narrator.unknown place he seeks; but no, he has not, for he is back at an earlier point in the story, though he does not seem to have been dreaming. He even sees himself in the street. The book makes its own unexpected, unexpectable designs; this is ecriture labyrinthine, as Les Gommes is writing with an eraser. The story ends where it began, within the immediate perceptual field or a narrator” (20-21).

Kermode notes the novel “is always not doing things which we unreasonably assume novels ought to do: connect, diversity, explain, make concords, facilitate extrapolations. Certainly there is no temporality, no successiveness.” (21).

What Kermode (not to mention Robbe-Grillet) seem blind to is the parasitic dependence of the novel on the expectations of narrative development and form. This novel only works on readers who come to it expecting a narrative. If those expectations are subverted as Robbe-Grillet apparently hopes, the novel becomes pretty pointless.

Pity the subversive, who, if successful, must fall silent. 

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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