The Erasers
by Alain Robbe-Grillet
"The true writer has nothing to say," Alain
Robbe-Grillet once announced, in his
characteristically enigmatic fashion. Yet

this controversial author never took
advantage of—in the parlance of the
arresting officer—the right to remain silent.
Still it took him many years before he found
his vocation as a leader of an avant-garde
literary movement.
Robbe-Grillet first
studied agricultural
engineering, worked
as a machinist in a
compulsory labor
program at a Nurem-
berg tank factory
during World War
II, and later made a
living as an agronomist. He didn't publish

novels until his thirties, when The Erasers
(1951), followed up by The Voyeur (1953)
and Jealousy (1957), announced the arrival
of a provocative writer who irritated many
readers with his disregard of the conventions

of narrative fiction, but delighted influential
critics such as Barthes and Blanchot for this

very same reason. The essays collected in
Robbe-Grillet's For a New Novel (1963)
solidified this author’s reputation for
lingering at the cutting edge, while his
screenplay for the deliberately cryptic film
Last Year at Marienbad (1961) proved that
he could be even more iconoclastic in a
cinematic setting and—perhaps equally

surprising!—earn an Oscar nomination in
the process. He later went on to direct his
own films, none of them showing up at your
local downtown megaplex or on TV during
sweeps week. In truth, Robbe-Grillet paid a

price for his ostentatious disregard of the
rules other artists followed. His name
eventually became emblematic of a certain
prissy pretentiousness. When he is mentioned
in the movie Sideways—the hapless Paul
Giamatti character, describing his failed
novel ("It evolves - or devolves - into a kind
of a Robbe-Grillet mystery - but no real
resolution"), the effect is to accentuate the
character’s pretentiousness and irresolution.   
And that film
did make it to your hometown
mall movie screens and on to the shelves at
Blockbuster.  Yet for others, Robbe-Grillet is
remembered fondly as an author from an

age in which certain grand expectations for
change and novelty still adhered to literary
fiction.  This author may ultimately be
remembered less for his body of work, and

more for that glorification of rule-breaking,
oddly enough both austere and expansive in

his case, towards which he always aspired.  
Essay by Ted Gioia

For nine days in a row, someone has been murdered
at exactly the same time, between seven and eight
in the evening, but each killing has occurred in a
different part of the country.  
The victims are all individuals
of status and socioeconomic
importance, loosely connected
with government affairs, but
whose influence is mostly felt
behind the scenes. A terrorist
group may be responsible for
the killings, but the newspapers
are reluctant to call attention
to the unfolding pattern. The
repetition of circumstances
may, after all, simply be a matter
of coincidence.  

Then again, almost everything in The Erasers, Alain
Robbe-Grillet’s debut novel, is repeated, with a similar
ambiguity permeating the unfolding patterns. These
recurrences can range from modest incidents—the
purchase of an eraser at a stationery store (something

which seems to take place every fifty pages, more or less,
in this novel)—to matters of life and death. In the
convoluted world of Robbe-Grillet, the same crime
might even take place twice, in the identical location
and with even the same victim. To reinforce this sense
of doubleness, the author will sometimes repeat specific
passages of dialogue or description.   

At one key juncture in the book, Robbe-Grillet interrupts

the narrative to insert a lengthy, maddening description
of how objects in a room are reflected in a mirror.
The reader might be forgiven for seeing the entire
novel as a similar exercise in reflections, both accurate
and misleading. An official is sent from the central
government to take charge of the local investigation, but
as he begins gathering evidence, he learns, to his dismay,
that he bears an uncanny resemblance to one of the
suspects wanted for questioning. The similarity in
appearance is so uncanny, that casual acquaintances can’t
tell one from another. Mon semblable, mon frère, mon
detective! And—who knows?—in the convoluted world
of Robbe-Grillet, the detective and criminal might very
well turn out to be the same person.  

Lulled by the sense of repetition, even those investigating

the crime can be caught unawares when a break in the
pattern occurs. The ninth victim survives the shooting
and escapes with just a minor flesh wound. But fearful
that the terrorist group will come back to finish the job,
he goes into hiding, meanwhile enlisting the help of a doctor
and friend in making it appear as if he has actually been
murdered. The police themselves are fooled by the ruse,
as is the official sent from the central ministry to investigate
the crime.

The Erasers, as elsewhere in his ouevre, Robbe-Grillet
likes to play games with the conventions of the classic
detective story.  In this instance, he not only enjoys
following the investigation of a murder that never took
place, but also constructs a plot in which all of the sharp
binary oppositions of the crime story—stark contrasts,
so familiar to use, between criminal and victim, detective
and suspect, even cause and effect—are blurred and
frequently reversed.  Meanwhile, many of the most
basic elements of a typical mystery are left out entirely.  
Even at the close of the book, matters of motive—for
both perpetrators and enforcers—and other key elements
of the plot remain murky and subject to dispute.

Yet if the readers find themselves uncertain and confused

—this is, after all, a Robbe-Grillet novel, so you need to
accept puzzlement and occasional annoyance as part of
the admission price—the leading characters in The Erasers
are quite confident about their own ability to interpret
events.   The police inspector Laurent is sure that the
alleged murder is actually a suicide and thus no criminal
will ever be arrested.  One of the younger policemen
on the case is certain that the killing was a family matter,
in which the victim’s son is the guilty party.  The
celebrated intelligence officer Fabius sees conspiracy
everywhere, and knows that this murder is just one more
interconnecting thread in a complex web of treachery.
Even the sole surviving murder target falls into the trap
of misinterpreting motives and events.

In a book with so many dead ends, Robbe-Grillet

somehow manages to force the various plots and sub-
plots to converge in a surprising, unsettling ending. The
book that starts by subverting so many basic elements of
the murder mystery finally validates them, with a real
culprit, an actual victim, and a smoking hot weapon—a
coherence that you may not have anticipated if you come

to this book familiar with Robbe-Grillet’s other works.  
But don’t assume that this final chapter puts an end to
the series of repetitions and duplications that constitute
the heart of The Erasers. At the very end of the novel
Robbe-Grillet comes full circle with a conclusion that
takes the reader back to the very opening scene. And
perhaps this next time, the story will end differently.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and pop culture. His latest
book is Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by Oxford
University Press.

Publication date of this essay: August 23, 2011
New Angles on an Old Genre
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Further Clues:

Interview with Alain Robbe-Grillet by Shusha Guppy from
The Paris Review

Alain Robbe-Grillet's Facebook Page

Alain Robbe-Grillet's Lecture on YouTube

Robbe-Grillet's Last Year at Marienbad

How to Win the Robbe-Grillet Matchstick Game Every Time
The Reading List
(with links to essays)

Peter Ackroyd

Douglas Adams
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective

Martin Amis
London Fields

Paul Auster
The New York Trilogy

Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Roberto Bolaño

Jorge Luis Borges

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz

Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time

Elizabeth Hand
Generation Loss

Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley

Norman N. Holland
Death in a Delphi Seminar

Franz Kafka
The Trial

Jonathan Lethem
Gun, with Occasional Music
Motherless Brooklyn

Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Prone Gunman

Gabriel García Márquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Cameron McCabe
The Face on the Cutting-Room

Philip MacDonald
The Rynox Murder

China Miéville
The City and the City

Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

Patrick Modiano
Missing Person

Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore
A Wild Sheep Chase

Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire

Joyce Carol Oates
Mysteries of Winterthurn

Flann O'Brien
The Third Policeman

Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
A Void

Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
Equal Danger

Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco

Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

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