Alain Robbe-Grillet, author of the Nouveau Roman (or New Novel) movement, always challenges readers and their conception of reality. Topography of a Phantom City (out of print) is no exception. Repetition and shifts in point of view and time make this novel a brilliant example of the movement and Robbe-Grillet’s talents in engendering a sense of dislocation (both in place and time).
“Repeatedly upon a time (in fact one could say as a rule)…” the narrator says late in the novel (98). This touches on several of the main ideas including myth, routine and self-awareness. The same stories are told over and over in variations creating a mythological story. Plays shift to diagrams shift to observation from a first person narrator shifts seamlessly to third person point of view. It’s hard to see where these shifts occur, but all of a sudden you’re in the present tense and seeing the action from a different vantage point. As an example near the end, the first person narrator (a detective) says, “Then a fresh figure in the ballet-fight emerges on the cross-ruled sheet with the simplified strictness of a diagram.” (111) This is a compact example but even here, in this one sentence, visual action (ballet-fight) turns into a diagram (lines and arrows). That doesn’t change the “fact” or reality of what is happening, just the way the reader (and presumably the narrator) sees the action (as motion, as design for motion).
Time, too, is stunted and elongated all at once to the point where things (or nothing) happens seemingly simultaneous: “Some seconds, or some hours, or some years later the white hand has smashed the liquid mirror and obliterated the reflected image, the long transparent night dress, the face bent over, the wide-open eyes. And when D.H. pushes the door the room is empty like the rest of the house.” (58) The action, which happened at some unspecified moment, like a projector being turned off, reverberates for the reader, if not for D.H. (though even that seems to be open to interpretation — he walks through the house almost creating these past moments). Layers of meta-reality. While these shifts are disconcerting, they are gradually disconcerting, like when you wake up from a dream and it takes you a minute to understand where you are. Not the surreal dream-logic of nightmares, hallucination or dreams. And after all this is a novel of metaphor: it challenges our worldview, as the Nouveau Roman writers intended.
I heard this quoted in a song (or possibly a movie) recited with ambient sounds. I was struck by the power of the language but now I cannot remember where I heard it. Does anyone out there know?
“Our ears are full of the invisible buzzing of the insects singing on all sides simultaneously. We are in the country, before the first war, or toward the end of the last century, in a land with no parents and no boys, as usual. … We have not spoken for days and days. I think we have lost the power of speech.” (99)
Robbe-Grillet, Alain. Topology of a Phantom City. New York: Grove Press, 1977.