What’s in It for You?
Whoever makes a regular pastime of sitting down with an unfamiliar novel advertised as experimental is familiar with the feeling. I don’t mean the confusion effected by confusing twists, or tricky whodunits, or any other kind of superficially hard plot complication that readers of genre fiction can relate to. This begins around the eyelids, where you first blink a couple of times, to be sure you’re seeing correctly, and then creeps up to the brow, which goes crinkly with self doubt, and then finally frustrates you so deeply that you pause altogether, and page back to the front matter to check that this object you’re attempting to read is not some colossal, machine-produced, incomprehensible erratum, but actually a book, a novel written by a person who is real, like you and me. How deliciously this pervasive, fidgety ache can feel is what other people usually fail to grasp. One insanely brave friend of mine confessed to having read Joseph McElroy, everything by, in a daze of nearly complete non-comprehension. “Hundreds of hours of my life—” she told me, while twistedly grinning. “I’m not sure what I was doing.” To try and get a better idea, she’s planning on doing it—whatever it was—all over again. Some people climb to the top floor of tall buildings and leap off, while others peel immature scabs for yucks; I bought a copy of every novel by McElroy still in print and available on Amazon.
Any consumer who knows and loves the product that delivers this kind of experience will have viewed twentieth- and twenty-first-century trends in high-quality literary production—toward increasing complexity, and rarity of meaning and style—with a justifiable satisfaction. The goods have been delivered, for years, on time and up to snuff. Advancements were being made on the diverse fronts of literary research and announced in all usual trade journals with an appetizing regularity. The writers were at their work benches, working ever harder to make us, at home, in our easy chairs, work harder along with them. Which is why I didn’t hesitate when I was offered the opportunity to read and review A Sentimental Novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet, and why I hopped to the happy business of attempting to understand what the book was all about. Robbe-Grillet, after all, operated far in advance of even the advance guard of literary R&D; for half a century, his name was the most trusted brand in the Hopeful Bafflement industry. I was aware of his reputation as an innovator, a writer who developed a radically new technique for providing readers of experimental novels the premium-grade WTF? they appreciate. Rumors I had heard about the man’s work’s readability, or lack thereof, made Joseph McElroy seem akin to Jennifer Weiner by comparison. I imagined that A Sentimental Novel would be new and experimental in the familiar, enjoyable way. A reviewer gets to tinker with that kind of book, dismantle it and explain the way it works, relating to his reader how it contrasts with previous, similar books, and end up arguing whether or not the book is any good. It’s fun. The work, however occasionally tough it may be, is always deeply rewarding. Or, I assumed the work would be enjoyable and rewarding. Although I had wrangled with scores of difficult novels, and I had watched in admiration, so many times, as reviewers expertly dismantled and reassembled and explained experimental novels in The New York Review, the London Review, Bookforum, etc., my experience with book reviews was to date, technically, admittedly, read-only. Writing one myself was something I imagined I could do, if given the opportunity. Compared to most day jobs, my own included, being forced to read a novel, and being obligated to attempt to understand what its author is doing or saying, are heavenly assignments. That’s how I, at the outset, so eagerly looked forward to reviewing A Sentimental Novel. It’s also why I was in the end jolted by something so clichéd, and poetically justified, as a rude awakening.
The revolutionary design feature of Robbe-Grillet’s earlier novels, the innovation that made their author so subsequently influential, is the unprecedented way in which they are interestingly difficult to read. Jealousy (1957), The Voyeur (1955), and The Erasers (1953) work to disorient, distract, confuse, and even bore their readers, in the same fashion that simpler, more obviously difficult novels like Joseph McElroy’s do. They feign arbitrariness and they fail to make linear sense, they double back on, repeat, and contradict themselves. But they also withhold from readers the sort of reference markers—like narrative clues and hints, or allusions to mythology or literary history—that difficult novels had previously always used to assure their readers and signal to them of some higher meaning which can be attained after enduring all of the their hard parts. A Robbe-Grillet novel has no decoder key, akin to the various schema purporting to explain Joyce’s Ulysses, because it contains no decipherable secret message. And by denying the reader any explicit goal, an end to be found out, it forces her to question if and how she might even know, when/if/how she does or does not understand what she’s read. This higher order of non-comprehension offers the hope, irresistibly attractive for certain kinds of readers, of a better way to attempt to understand. Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, for example, is a novel in which almost nothing that is self-evidently meaningful happens, in between a lot that is seemingly irrelevant. Any attempt the reader makes to cohere the narrative is thwarted, seemingly to no end. The only certainty left undemolished, after 200 pages in which you observe a wife repeatedly execute routines that may or may not evince her adultery, is the knowledge that you are reading, and trying to make sense of, Jealousy. It’s unnerving and thrilling, this realization. The book’s takeaway is more negative than positive, like an existential colonic. The bottom drops out of every finished interpretation. The sole force making anything happen, in or around the book, is the reader’s hopeful, baffled attempt to know what is happening.
Along with Flaubertian third-person indirect discourse, and Joycean intertextual referentiality, this has to count as one of the most momentous technical developments in the history of the novel. Every successful experimental novel since—from Paul Auster’s existential detective fiction on the goofier, more superficial end, to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual and Helen DeWitt & Ilya Gridneff’s Your Name Here on the more serious end—has made the reader’s attempt to read a constituent part, sometimes the most important part, of what she was reading. Of these authors’ opacity and difficulty, we, the end-users of their tough books, were the ultimate beneficiaries. Dave Eggers, introducing a decennial reprint of the most beloved American experimental novel of the last twenty years, promised potential readers that, “When you exit these pages . . . you are a better person. It’s insane, but also hard to deny. Your brain is stronger because it’s been given a month-long workout, and, more importantly, your heart is sturdier . . .” The self-improvement power of experimental literature is a personal certainty that’s impossible to argue with, however tough it may be to relate and justify to others, who may have not experienced and internalized it for themselves. How a book that resists being read, at first, can end up by providing its ultimately successful readers a hard, almost spinal idea of who and what they are or are not. From the consumer’s end, the economics are hugely profitable. I will run the risk of devolving, briefly, into mawkish consumer testimonial, in order to recognize and acknowledge that I could hardly be doing what I’m doing if I had not spent hundreds of months working out what brilliant authors like the Daves, et many, many alii, were trying to say. I got the most out of the writers who said the least.
But while technically difficult novels were producing better, stronger, more empowered readers—self included—what the same readers remained unaware of, and probably for that very reason, is the conclusion that this improving trend was in the meantime, inevitably, progressing towards.
Success is the fate to which any technology that works is condemned. Because it happens inevitably, and because the ultimate consequences are so unhappy, methods have been developed for staving it off or deflecting it. Businesspeople, once they develop a foolproof method for selling home appliances, are forced to preventatively instruct their engineers to limit the functional lives of the microwaves and refrigerators they design. Executives, if they’ve found a way to completely satisfy their customers, must hire advertising consultants. But the tools that most excellently achieve their intended end—for example, the organization that I am, at my day job, a part of—can’t avoid what’s coming. Once, years ago, the firm that employs my colleagues and me invented a new and more effective way to satisfy a particular demand. This innovation secured the firm an advantageous position in the market around the service/good it so successfully revolutionized. In the decades since, our production methods have been progressively updated and improved. The quality of what we supply today is, IMHO, markedly better than it was back then. My colleagues are highly trained experts, perform their jobs perfectly, and deliver to our customers exactly what our customers want, which is why we all might, some day very soon, see our paid positions disappear right out from under us.
It was dumb to hope that I could eke out, if not a new, real vocation, then at least a minorly profitable sideline, by grappling with A Sentimental Novel. I ignored the obvious. The novel cries out, like a help wanted ad, for a READER, EXPERIENCED who might interpret and explain it, and anyone can answer. One thing about it that’s impossible not to respond to is how the book is, technically speaking, sexually explicit. A kind-of MPAA-warning gloss of the book’s explicitness might read, Violence, depravity, and inhumanity far beyond any reasonable standard is depicted. For another thing, A Sentimental Novel is perfectly—and painfully, during some of the more extensive XXX+ passages—comprehensible. You can read it in an hour or two. One long sentence—Gigi, a fourteen-year-old girl, is trained by her father to enjoy pain, submit to beatings, and comply with torturous commands; spectates at and complicitly participates in a sort-of orgiastic supper club, convoked by her dad, where other young girls are brutally murdered; and is pronounced, finally, after a climactic scene in which she is or is not raped by her father, grown-up herself enough to command, possess, and destroy others, in an alternate version of our world where everything is permitted and, just about, done—suffices for a complete résumé of what happens. The answer which one consensus group of reader dash commentators offered in response to the book’s explicitness and its apparent lack of ambiguity was that the book’s author was a two-bit huckster, a washed up charlatan who, his days as a true innovator a distant memory, was now reduced to attempting to épater and offend the most upstanding among us, and titillate the perverted few who actually desire to read what he wrote. A second, opposing consensus of reader dash commentators refuted this first interpretation to the effect that—and I will reproduce here the translator's unimprovably representative words in his preface—refusing to read A Sentimental Novel is a “pious exhibition of moral opprobrium [that] can be classified as wrong headed, springing from a comfort zone of profound and habitual moral hypocrisy.” An old and exceedingly well-read reader I barely know, who is hardly my acquaintance, once he got wind I that was contemplating reviewing it he could nevertheless not help telling me that A Sentimental Novel was definitive evidence that old Alain had lost his shit in a big way, and also admonishing me to be respectful of the man that Robbe-Grillet had once been, and the feats he’d achieved, which might best be done by pretending like A Sentimental Novel had never even happened. Either a hero or a villain or a wreck; a conclusive blow struck against the forces of moral order or the laughable attempt of an old coot to be outré and risqué or a tragic fate; beloved or burned or bemoaned. All these readers’ various and unreconciled view points make the novel they have in common seem almost irrelevant, except as an occasion for so much extra-textual drama. Reading what’s in A Sentimental Novel would be, not just a waste of time, but a distraction from what’s outside of it.
This is the end that I managed to not see coming, when I initially so giddily undertook the job of being this book’s reviewer. That A Sentimental Novel would be a perfectly readable difficult novel. For any reader who aspires, like I did, to enjoy themselves and be rewarded, the conclusion is tragic. Hopeful bafflement produces, eventually, a desperate understanding. A reader was only a reader while she was trying to read. Now that she’s succeeded, she’s out of the job.
Zach Maher is an assistant in the Classified Advertising Department of the New York Review of Books and the author of My Novel.