Among the many unsupportable assertions made by Stephen Marche in his semi-infamous 2008 diatribe against Alain Robbe-Grillet was the following:
The "new novel". . . as Robbe-Grillet defined and explained it in his famous 1963 essay, was high art at its unpalatably highest. It applied rules and regulations, opposed subjectivity and tried to dissolve plot and character into description.
I would challenge Marche to re-read Robbe Grillet's fiction, especially those novels written before the publication of For a New Novel, and try to make a case that any of these points can be sustained. Most of them, in fact, are precisely the opposite of what one finds in novels such as The Erasers, The Voyeur, and Jealousy, but I would like to focus in particular on The Voyeur as a work against which accusations such as Marche's simply aren't credible.
Like its immediate predecessor The Erasers, The Voyeur is essentially a detective story, although the earlier novel (Robbe-Grillet's first) literally includes a detective in its cast of characters while The Voyeur asks the reader to do the detective work its story calls for. It includes a murder of a young girl and a possibly psychopathic killer, both of them elements that would seemingly be attractive to the "popular" readers Marche believes Robbe-Grillet spurned and as far from the assumptions of "high art" as one could get. What is missing from its mystery plot is a firm resolution of the mystery, and while this refusal to accede to the conventions of the genre might be frustrating to some readers, it also manifests a commitment to the depiction of life's complexities, which are not reducible to the neat resolutions of mystery stories. This commitment is not a characteristic of "high art." It is a characteristic of art.
What most readers who find themselves alienated by The Voyeur would cite as their source of disfavor surely would not be its application of "rules and regulations" but precisely the absence of such rules. A proper novel of this kind (a proper novel in general) should establish a stable relationship between reader and protagonist, should lay out its plot as a discernable series of events and should ultimately fill in whatever gaps might be left over, should use description to fill out the narrative not to substitute for it, should leave the reader with the impression its narrative has been appropriately developed and completed.
The Voyeur does none of these things. Its protagonist, a watch salesman named Mathias, initially provokes a mostly impassive response, although eventually we are led to exchange this neutrality for a more decisive attitude: either we are appalled and think Mathias is a monster on the loose or we have some sympathy for a character who is clearly insane and can't even remember whether he committed the act or not. Given that finally we don't know which person he really is, the original more affectless reaction seems the right one, but many readers might find this unregulated drift in our disposition toward the character unsettling.
The Voyeur begins as a relatively straightforward account of a day the watch salesman spends on an island off the French coast, which is initially presented as the place where the salesman himself grew up. However, this item of information is not the first we come to suspect might be questionable. Soon enough the narrative begins to circle around itself--reflecting perhaps the figure-eight pattern that Matthias uses to navigate the island on his quest to sell watches--and to shuffle between past and present. We become uncertain whether Mathias is simply following his route or whether he is engaging in dissociative reveries. We become concretely aware of the murder of the young girl about two-thirds of the way through the novel, but there may be hints that something untoward has happened through these reveries or in the spaces opened up by disruptions of narrative continuity. The murder is the narrative's central event, yet it is the one episode in the novel that remains undescribed.
Description is indeed a dominant strategy in The Voyeur, but only a passive and inattentive reader would conclude that it is used to "dissolve plot and character." Both plot and character are revealed through description, not annulled by it. Although the point of view in the novel is ostensibly third-person, we would be mistaken to take a passage like this, a description of the island's harbor as Mathias's boat approaches it, as originating in an "outside" narrator:
The pier, which seemed longer than in actually was as an effect of perspective, extended from both sides of this base line in a cluster of parallels describing, with a precision accentuated even more sharply by the morning light, a series of elongated planes alternately horizontal and vertical: the crest of the massive parapet that protected the tidal basin from the open sea, the inner wall of the parapet, the jetty along the top of the pier, and the vertical embankment that plunged straight into the water of the harbor. The two vertical structures were in shadow, the other two brilliantly lit by the sun--the whole breadth of the parapet and all of the jetty save for one dark narrow strip: the shadow cast by the parapet. Theoretically, the reversed image of the entire group could be seen reflected in the harbor water, and, on the surface, still within the same play of parallels, the shadow cast by the vertical embankment extending straight toward the quay.
This is what Mathias sees as he stares as the scene from the ship, but, more importantly, it is the way Mathias sees it, complete with the attention to specific detail and obsession with geometric patterning. These qualities are not just those that are brought to passages of description like this--and the novel contains many, many more--but help to constitute Mathias's character, help constitute him as a character. He is precisely the sort of man who keeps careful watch of himself and his surroundings and whose apprehension of the world takes special note of its geometric attributes--its existence as "a series of elongated planes alternately horizontal and vertical," etc. The "plot" in which he figures as the primary character, furthermore, is not "dissolved" into description of this sort but is enabled by it, the "mystery" at its center evoked by it. Does the omission of description of the act itself signal that Mathias didn't do it, or that he did but can't bring himself to confront it? If the "real" is what is able to impress itself on Mathias's awareness, then the fact that the murder has not done so means he had nothing to do with it, or that there's only some reality he can face?
These questions are not answered by one's reading of The Voyeur, and that is because, far from "oppos[ing] subjectivity," Robbe-Grillet builds this novel on it. The descriptions offered are not "objective" renderings of a reality presupposed to exist but indeed the subjective perceptions of an ultimately very flawed and uncertain character. The reality he constructs is a vividly rendered one, and it is the reality we as readers must also inhabit, but ultimately it is a rendered one. There is no reason why an approach emphasizing description must therefore necessarily be an approach seeking objectivity. A novel like The Voyeur leaves us with the conviction that subjectivity is all.
In her book Inventing the Real World: The Art of Alain Robbe-Grillet (1998), Marjorie H. Hellerstein explains that Robbe-Grillet "began by looking into the possibilities of expressing subjectivity while seeming to be objective in descriptions without emotion." That Mathias's perceptions are related "without emotion" is probably what bothers someone like Marche, a characteristic he translates into a rejection of subjectivity. Marche believes that Robbe-Grillet "convinced a generation of talented novelists that there was something vulgar about attracting a popular readership," and presumably the lack of "emotion" in Robbe-Grillet's work acts as an impediment to this "popular readership." It's too "puritanical," too hostile to the "pleasurable" in fiction.
I doubt that Robbe-Grillet would have objected had his books managed to reach a wider audience. This audience would, of course, have had to accept the books on their own terms, as harbgingers of a "new" fiction that renounces the easy pleasures of traditional fiction as distortions and misrepresentations of the very reality it was purported to be portraying. But I don't see why these books can't be taken on those terms, why they can't be enjoyed for their own ingenuities and mischievous challenges to our expectations. There is pleasure to be had in allowing one's assumptions to be challenged and following a work's alternative logic where it will lead, especially if that alternative logic provides new insights into the still possible permutations into which fiction writers might shape their work, which I believe The Voyeur and Robbe-Grillet's work as a whole does. Finally it seems to me that Stephen Marche is being "elitist" when he assumes that "readers in the English-speaking world" are incapable of reading in this way.