Pity the Subversive

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. 

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