16 October 2006

Trapped in text

Between reading Richard Powers, Virginia Woolf, Stephen Hawking, and Alain Robbe-Grillet, my mind is buzzing with thoughts on space/time/perspective/the nature of reality and the way in which we attempt to apprehend it with words. All of these texts inform each other in one way or another--I'm sure someone in some grad school somewhere has probably written a thesis that encapsulates these works, linking a private human understanding of "truth" with books that plumb the depths of reality's features in one way or another. I have always found books that tinker with space and time to be fascinating experiments where words are the tools that scratch at the skin of truth.

I've just finished Jealousy (Maud piqued my curiosity), and although I have no experience in talking about this sort of writing at all, here are some preliminary neophyte thoughts...

The first-person narrator (who never says "I") meticulously describes everything he sees and hears, while the reader becomes rapidly aware that he suspects his wife of having an affair with a neighbor from the next plantation. Certain events are described over and over again in the narrative (with slight differences each time) and I felt like I was witnessing an endless memory-loop in an obsessive mind. The narrator's almost clinical detachment becomes increasingly creepy as the excuses he makes for the other two ("It was only a piece of bad luck, without consequences, an incident of no seriousness, one of the minor inconveniences of colonial life.") slowly give way to descriptive fixations that become slightly more obscure and chaotic the more his selective memory jumps around. The coldly "objective" observations undermine themselves as linear time is confused for absolute space. (Precise location and situation are the only things that can be known through his gaze--there is even a diagram mapping out the house and the locations repeatedly mentioned in the novel. Time becomes hazy and one has to read carefully to distinguish between 6.30am and 6.30pm.)

With each paragraph, I had to reorient myself to the narrator's switched subjects and erratic descriptions--my only immediate point of reference for this was The Waves (and, basically, Virginia Woolf's writing in general). The reader has to be constantly alert to subtle cues and shifts in the observations, because the shocks are sudden and come without much warning. I went into the novel with the understanding that a murder takes place. After finishing it, I can't even tell you if that's true or if one or even two people are murdered. But I love this sort of thing--when an author demands to be read carefully, creating close readers of us all. I know that if I'd paid closer attention, compared each page of "action" (or nonaction, as the case may be) with the diagram, counted the number of times that smashed centipede was mentioned (and the single mention of its removal), and noted the discrepancies among the narrator's own versions of events, a much more defined story would've emerged.

In his essay "Objective Literature: Alain Robbe-Grillet," Roland Barthes declares:
For Robbe-Grillet, the function of language is not a raid on the absolute, a violation of the abyss, but a progression of names over a surface, a patient unfolding that will gradually "paint" the object, caress it, and along its whole extent deposit a patina of tentative identifications, no single term of which could stand by itself for the presented object. [...]

Robbe-Grillet is important because he has attacked the last bastion of the traditional art of writing: the organization of literary space.
Meanwhile, the internal is externalized to the extent that all supposed "subjectivity" is banished to nearly scientific precision of visual description. It's uncanny to read, but a remarkable glimpse into yet another way of viewing the world.

Here is a 2003 interview with Robbe-Grillet (via This Space).

1 comment:

Isabella said...

I've had that very book — Jealousy/Labyrinth — on my to-read shelf for ages... What've I been waiting for? It's going to fit in nicely after my current read (Eco's Mysterious Flame... which is disappointing, but curiously, speaking of how texts inform each other, a lot of the Ed's Powers discussion is directly applicable to it, re memory/identity).