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Topology of a Phantom City by Alain…
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Topology of a Phantom City (1975)

by Alain Robbe-Grillet

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English (3)  French (1)  All (4)
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Reading Robbe-Grillet novels induces some type of fugue state in my reading mind. I only ever have a dim understanding of what is transpiring in the text and yet I read on transfixed, certain there will be no resolution and that at the end I will know little more than when I began. R-G's constant reconfiguring of events, of settings, of objects, his replacing, adding, omitting, contradicting, it seems like it should be maddening but instead yields a languorous effect.

This book builds on R-G's previous novels, feeling like an expansion on those, though I cannot yet put into words a description of how it expands, except to note that there are passages that read like prose poetry, not something I recall encountering in his earlier novels that I've read. Also, this is one of his collage novels, having been knit together from previous pieces of writing. The book, as with the others I've read, in a sense, goes nowhere, though in a vaguely systematic way. Often I prefer a light coating of humor in these cases, but there is no humor. Well, I do recall at one point laughing inwardly at something, though I'm skeptical of its intentionality as humor in the text. And concerning the erratic and ambiguous narrator, possibly one of the most unreliable in the history of literature, this shifting I sometimes we sometimes not there at all could be distracting, no? Oddly, no.

R-G seems to be telling us, over and over, like a hammer striking an anvil at discordant intervals, that there is no way of knowing exactly at any given moment what is really going on. What you have are shards, what you have is infinite versioning, what you don't have is fixity. You will never know and knowing you will never know sometimes brings its own queer satisfaction.

In his article 'On Several Obsolete Notions' later reprinted in For a New Novel, Robbe-Grillet wrote that 'to tell a story has become strictly impossible', a rather extreme statement with which I can't say I agree, but which serves as a suitable entry point to explaining his approach to fiction. Annie Dillard, in her book Living by Fiction, opined that such fiction, fiction without story so to speak, is 'unlikely to engage deeply our senses or our hearts' but its 'attraction for the mind may be considerable.' And it is indeed my mind, not my heart, which is so drawn to this book, and in general to R-G's fiction. ( )
  S.D. | Apr 4, 2014 |
I love this book.

I'm not sure what it's about.

But I do have five theories.

Theory #1: A murder has taken place. The narrator describes the crime scene like a detective who does not know which bit of evidence will prove relevant. So the detective/narrator writes everything down without filtering his senses or his thoughts. The result appears random the way notes often do. The detective/narrator continues to record details moving outwards from the scene of the crime to the neighboring area, eventually throughout the entire city itself.

Nothing moves much. What movement there is resembles the movement in a still photograph. We can tell that this person was walking when the photograph was taken, though he is motionless in the photograph itself. The novel becomes a series of crime scene photographs which we are supposed to assemble to determine what happened.

Theory #2: A group of young women, prisoners in the city jail, are playing with a deck of Tarot cards. The narration moves from the real city into the phantom one depicted in the illustrations on the Tarot cards. The subsequent murders take place in an imagined world inside the imagined world of the novel. Are the girls imagining the crimes--their own or ones they were the victims of--or is the narrator at work through them. The crimes take on the mythic properties associated with Tarot cards.

Theory #3: The murderer is a photographer. He lures his victims to his studio where they pose for him, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. He reviews the photographs afterwards. These become the book itself, a series of photographs presented to the reader by the killer/photographer/narrator who took them. Like an artist would, the narrator shows us only what he wants us to see. We must fill in the missing details, infer his true intentions, his motives, his character.

Theory #4: There has been only one murder. The variations presented to the reader are each ways to interpret the evidence the detective/narrator has gathered. The crime could have happened this way, or this way, or this way. The novel is an obsessive examination of the same event from many possible angles. A search for truth that has no ending. This is similar to the structure Mr. Robbe-Grillet's novel Jealousy which I reviewed here.

Theory #5: The reader is the killer. The detective presents us the still pictures of the novel which make little sense because our own psychology has become too disturbed to understand our own actions any longer. We've no memory of committing any of the crimes depicted. We've nothing left to help us make sense of our world except a series of images with no clear connection to each other. How could we have done it if we don't remember it? How can we make sense of the evidence the narrator shows us if he does nothing but wait for us to explain it all, to confess?

Of these five, I think theory #2 is least likely to hold up under cross examination. I suspect theory #3 is closest to the author's intention. But I'm starting to like theory #5 the most.

Whichever interpretation is right or best, the fact remains that Topology of a Phantom City is a mystery novel about interpretation. There is no solution. Just evidence readers can use to come up with their own theories about what happened and about who done it.

I loved it. ( )
  CBJames | Jul 17, 2011 |
This was recommended as one of his best. Instead it showed me how he is at his worst. (There is a new edition of "Voyeur," which I may re-read.) This is a stultifying pastiche and tortured ekphrasis of Paul Delvaux. Shows just how frozen, how petrified, his imagination is when it's not focused on an actual scene. ( )
  JimElkins | Jul 23, 2009 |
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