The Erasers
by Alain Robbe-Grillet
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"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.  
ROGUES GALLERY:
ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET
Reviewed 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.

In
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's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
the Cool
.
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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
Hawksmoor

Douglas Adams
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective
Agency

Martin Amis
London Fields

Paul Auster
Leviathan
The New York Trilogy

Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Roberto Bolaño
2666

Jorge Luis Borges
Ficciones

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover
Noir

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz
Cosmos

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
Floor

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
Ilustrado

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

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Contact Info:
tedgioia@hotmail.com
www.tedgioia.com

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