Traditional terms of literary analysis such as “plot” and “character” do not apply comfortably to the New Novel form credited to Alain Robbe-Grillet. In a series of essays collected under the title Pour un nouveau roman (1963; For a New Novel, 1965), Robbe-Grillet describes such terms as “several obsolete notions”:We are so accustomed to discussions of “character,” “atmosphere,” “form,” and “content,” of “message” and “narrative ability” and “true novelists” that it requires an effort to free ourselves from this spider web and realize that it represents an idea about the novel (a ready-made idea, which everyone admits without argument, hence a dead idea), and not at all that..."nature” of the novel in which we are supposed to believe.
With this warning in place, Robbe-Grillet describes his New Novel, in which the act of writing is the form itself, and in which the minute description of objective reality is intertwined with fanciful conjecture, dream states, feverishly subjective distortions, and pure invention, none of which answers to any chronological sequence as assumed in the traditional novel. Nor is character defined in the same way, since no psychologically recognizable or three-dimensional portraits are proffered by the writer. The novel is peopled instead by rather vaguely identified and often amorphous creatures, ambiguous and unstructured, about whom the reader knows only the external details of their lives.
In the Labyrinth, Robbe-Grillet’s fourth novel, stands as his most fully realized example of the theories he only partially succeeded in illustrating in his previous novels. Unraveling the events, which twist and turn in a labyrinthine way, the reader understands that a young soldier is wandering the streets of a French city, seeking to deliver a shoe-box shaped package to the family of another soldier, who died in a hospital. The contents of the package, a mystery which holds the reader’s interest, prove to be unimportant personal belongings, not the bomb or the secret papers suggested by the intrigue of the novel.
The soldier, seen from the perspective of a narrative observer whose own physical position relative to the soldier is open to question, is fevered; much of what is reported can then be seen as the hallucinations of the soldier himself. He enlists the help of a local boy who (depending on the whim of the narrator at various points) skips happily through the snow, holds an umbrella in the rain, or hides the soldier after he has been shot by enemy soldiers. A woman, possibly the boy’s mother, helps the soldier, trying to learn the correct name of the street he seeks and tending his wounds.
In the meantime, the narrator is alone in his room (possibly), where every detail of the mantel, the circular stains made by the ashtray, the fly walking on the lampshade, and the crack in the ceiling is described dispassionately and scientifically. At one point, the narrator looks at a small engraving of a tavern scene, which works itself into the narrative pattern, and describes the scene down to the facial expressions and direction of the gaze of each person in the tavern. The two realities nevertheless blend together; for example, the tavern scene includes a young boy clutching a brown box like the one the soldier carries through the streets of the city. Finally, dying on a bed that may be the woman’s (except that the narrator’s crack on the ceiling is discerned), the soldier is given a third injection of painkiller by the doctor, who refers to himself as “I,” thus identifying himself as the narrator of the entire novel.
In one sense a subjective recounting of real events, and in another sense a conjectural reconstruction, invented in the quiet of the doctor’s room (possibly based on conclusions drawn from the box of letters and insignificant items left behind by his dead patient), the novel never retreats to the traditional forms established by such great French writers as Honore de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert. Instead, it remains in a descriptive mode, devoid of “meaning” or “signification,” refusing all attempts to place a grid of symbolic or universally understood images over the objective descriptions.