Topology of a Phantom City by Alain Robbe-Grillet
Review by S. D. Stewart
Reading Robbe-Grillet novels induces a fugue state in my reading mind. I only ever have a dim understanding of what is transpiring in the text and yet I read on transfixed, certain there will be no resolution and that at the end I will know little more than when I began. R-G’s constant reconfiguring of events, of settings, of objects, his replacing, adding, omitting, contradicting, it seems like it should be maddening but instead yields a languorous effect.
This book builds on R-G’s previous novels, feeling like an expansion on those, though I cannot yet put into words a description of how it expands, except to note that there are passages that read like prose poetry, not something I recall encountering in his earlier novels that I’ve read. Also, this is one of his collage novels, having been knit together from previous pieces of writing. The book, as with the others I’ve read, in a sense, goes nowhere, though in a vaguely systematic way. Often I prefer a light coating of humor in these cases, but there is no humor. Well, I do recall at one point laughing inwardly at something, though I’m skeptical of its intentionality as humor in the text. And concerning the erratic and ambiguous narrator, possibly one of the most unreliable in the history of literature, this shifting I sometimes we sometimes not there at all could be distracting, no? Oddly, no.
R-G seems to be telling us, over and over, like a hammer striking an anvil at discordant intervals, that there is no way of knowing exactly at any given moment what is really going on. What you have are shards, what you have is infinite versioning, what you don’t have is fixity. You will never know and knowing you will never know sometimes brings its own queer satisfaction.
In his article ‘On Several Obsolete Notions’ later reprinted in For a New Novel, Robbe-Grillet wrote that ‘to tell a story has become strictly impossible’, a rather extreme statement with which I can’t say I agree, but which serves as a suitable entry point to explaining his approach to fiction. Annie Dillard, in her book Living by Fiction, opined that such fiction, fiction without story so to speak, is ‘unlikely to engage deeply our senses or our hearts’ but its ‘attraction for the mind may be considerable.’ And it is indeed my mind, not my heart, which is so drawn to this book, and in general to R-G’s fiction.