Disappointment, Impotent Rage, an Uncertain Future

So, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Snapshots, more or less a collection of scenarios and/or hints of stories shut down before they’ve begun to unfold, was a mixed bag. Up until this point, I’d been a big fan of the few curious worlds of Robbe-Grillet I’d delved into: endless loops of possibly-hallucinated sameness, jealousies and suspicions broiling just under calm and stylish surfaces, muted intrigues. But this little volume wedged a nagging seed of doubt in my head– or maybe more my heart, really, but more on that later.

The “snapshot” nature of these separate scene-descriptions wasn’t what disappointed me; I knew I was in for brief flashes of settings that sometimes made me feel as if the guy had published a bunch of old writing exercises. With an author of this nature, though, even those snippets succeeded in having something haunting and/or vaguely menacing about them– a real feat, when you’re limiting yourself to short bursts. I did often think that poetry would have taken his (sometimes) excessively detailed material and disposed of it much more effectively and efficiently– but enjoyed the sensation that these vignettes were prototypes for something like Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, that triumph of nitpicky description for description’s sake.

So, overall, fine. Until the last snapshot (“The Secret Room”), a lingering gaze upon a post-sacrificial scene, all predictably fascinated with the subdued “milkwhite” embodiment of female sensuality, a few pages of misogynist soft porn justified by– and probably accepted due to– its preemptively defensive label as “art.” I just couldn’t stomach what the back cover so blithely described as Robbe-Grillet’s “interest in the sado-erotic,” as if some guy’s hobby of imagining and publicly aestheticizing gender-based cruelty was just as legitimate as bowling or woodworking. And if this interest is just peachy keen, why not tout one’s fascination with snuff films, which really amount to a less beautified, less ritualized celluloid enactment of words put down on paper?

Emmanuel Benner, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I’ll engage the argument that such literature– or maybe just this piece– has nothing to do with some sort of malign desire to dominate one gender or the other, with the plea to compare reception of just these sorts of works, along with any number of staged rape scenes, or B-spectacles of scantily-clad babes being chased by psycho-killers, with that of 2005’s Hard Candy. Soon after it came out, I wrote an account of what it was like to watch the film, which includes what we believe to be a teen girl castrating a pedophile, with men who, after recovering from the pained sympathy-pretzels they’d twisted themselves into during certain scenes, were outraged at the movie’s gall– and even more so at my observation that now they knew what it felt like to be subjected to cinematic and literary rape scenes and have your objections dismissed as an insensitivity to artistic license. Centuries-long artistic portrayal of women’s victimization as women (from any number of forays into Leda and the Swan to A Clockwork Orange)? Acceptable. One film that depicts punishment-as-attack-on-manhood? Blasphemous. Maybe Deliverance served as a gateway here– but since the sexualized violence there wasn’t being committed by a woman, we could all go away feeling disturbed and then get on with our lives.

There’s not much more I can say about my reaction to “The Secret Room;” if I haven’t conveyed my injured outrage by now, I won’t be able to do it by drawing out my justifications. And so the question that’s accompanied my disgust is: How does (or does not) this particular snapshot change my feelings about this author? I’ve gotten to know more about his work, yes, and so I’m suffering from a lessened delusion about what his overall oeuvre contains– one of those nice “growing experiences” we’re all supposed to be so happy to have. And how much does or will it matter, especially since what were acceptable assumptions at the time Robbe-Grillet was writing have changed since his pieces were published? Knowing Henry Miller was a dirty old man whose stories were heavily populated by a lot of slime didn’t change my appreciation for his mind-blowing word craft and ability to set a scene; Mason & Dixon made me forgive (and then some) Thomas Pynchon for The Crying of Lot 49‘s hovering paternalism.

At least in the immediate aftermath of “The Secret Room,” my love of The Erasers is unchanged; I wouldn’t mind a repeated round of disorientation thanks to The Labyrinth. But it might take a while before I’m willing to return to any of those mysterious worlds– and as They say, you can’t go back home (or in this case, to a familiar story and the feelings it evoked) again.

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