Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Books: In the Labyrinth, by Alain Robbe-Grillet

This is another of Robbe-Grillet's clean circles, spare but not sparse, spiraling almost imperceptably away from it's beginning before neatly coming back around. Everything is blown with snow. We follow a soldier through blanketed, blankened strets, lined with anonymous buildings that slowly become familiar-either because we're walking in circles, or because, like the soldier, we are exhausted—sick, wet, and delusional.

Grillet lodges the reader more firmly in the protagnonist here than in some of his other novels. In Jealousy, the reader is a locked-out onlooker, fascinated by the long-haired A, but trapped behind the eyes of her nameless husband, who is never described, who never describes himself, and who gives little of himself away in his descriptions of his wife and their plantation. But in Labyrinth, the narration comes from some third party. Nevertheless, we identify with the lost and woozy soldier as we navigate the text—where phrases and images and entire scenes repeat. Our textual déjà vu is the soldier's physical déjà vu.

And then, there is the matter of the box. The soldier walks in circles because he has a box that belonged to another soldier-one he did not know-and is trying to bring that box to a man-whom he does not know. Nor do we know whether he knows the contents of the box; we certainly do not, for whenever somebody asks him, he only answers, "things," or, when further pressed ("what kind of things?"), "my things" (an untruth, in fact). But the need to be rid of this box is strong, strong enough to push him forward through the snow, following a taunting child who wears a cape and may or may not know the way to the street whose name the soldier cannot remember. And yet, when he tries to be rid of it—to just shove it through the grate into the sewer, he cannot. Nor can we cast aside the book/box, until we have seen it delivered/finished, even though that delivery will not give us access to what is locked inside: who this man is, where he has come from, why he has nowhere to go. When the box's delivery is frustrated, his only remaining task is to die, which he does, from a gunshot unintended for him, in the bed in the home of the sprightly boy, tended by the kind woman, who doubles as a waitress in a painting of a cafe to which we are often drawn—for the soldier and his box are in the painting, as is the boy, and the soldier stops into the cafe as he walks, following the boy.

It is possible, in fact, that the soldier is not walking deliriously through the snowy streets of an unnamed French city, but is a phantom circling the illusory city dreamed by an old, delusional man, in whose dusty one-room apartment the painting of the cafe scene hangs. This man appears in the dream as the doctor, who carries an umbrella, tries to give the soldier directions, and ultimately presides at his death.

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