Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Butor’s dedication of Mobile to the American painter Jackson Pollock suggests that he seeks to scatter haphazard fragments of Americana throughout his travelogue. However, this suggestion is deceptive when one realizes how much controlled chance goes into the fabric of this story. Indeed, Butor intended Mobile to be composed like a patchwork quilt, piecing together the patchwork iconography of America to create his story. His purposeful juxtapositions, digressions, and quotations create the feeling of a patchwork, working rhetorically to guide the reader along prosaic roadways.

Alternating typefaces provide a crucial map for reading this travelogue. For example, geographical information, details of local flora and fauna, and advertisements are printed in roman type and serve as the story’s framework. The welcoming signs that introduce different states and town names are printed in roman capital letters. County names, times, road signs, and brief physical descriptions of individual states are printed in lowercase roman letters. Around this framework Butor groups a wide selection of materials in italics. Short italicized phrases, often concerning American colonial history or containing banal dialogue, describe the natural and cultural features characteristic of each region. Longer italicized texts, including commentaries, catalogs, and selections from writings of famous Americans convey what is distinctive in American culture as a whole. The opposition of the shorter, fragmented italic elements with longer italicized texts may be viewed as dialogue or even distinction between rich local diversity and national cultural identity.

Butor’s reliance on a disjointed form is much more than a compendium of impressions of the United States by an outsider. The quiltwork form of Mobile is neither symmetrical nor definitive. It is instead an experimental work that renounces a central narrative consciousness in favor of one that approximates the experience of movement through time, history, and space. The varieties of typefaces, as well as blank spaces and margins, provide readers with greater mobility as they make their way across the page over the vast American landscape. This rejection of linearity provides a compelling solution to the abundance of heterogeneous information that assails the cross-country traveler and inquiring cultural historian.