Outside it is snowing. A soldier trudges through the streets of an unfamiliar city, carrying a mysterious package on a journey to a street he can't remember. He pauses for rest in an empty tavern, observing in detail the dust and the circular traces of a wine glass on the tabletop. On the wall is a picture of a bar scene. Separated from the raucous patrons are three forsaken soldiers. Or is this a snapshot from the past, a fragment of memory? Outside it is snowing. A child stands at a lamppost, silent and unhelpful. This is the same child that once led him to the tavern. He enters and is inspected by the patrons and bartender. On the tabletop the wine glass has left circular impressions in the dust. Outside it is snowing. Inside we are in the labyrinth.
Robbe-Grillet's novel, Dans le labyrinthe (1959; translated in English as In the Labyrinth in 1960) is one of the highwater marks of the new novel. It uses the device of exhaustive description to lull the reader into a sense of complacency, a complacency which the author evokes only to disrupt. The novel plays on the comforting expectations of the realist novel only to frustrate and finally overturn them.
Robbe-Grillet is well-known for his scenario to Alain Renais' film, Last Year at Marienbad (1961), and as a director in his own right; his films include L'Immortelle (1963), Trans-Europ-Express (1966) and, most recently, La Belle Captive (1981). Given this background, we might best describe his technique in terms of cinema. An establishing shot sets the scene. The camera quickly pulls in on a particular object, staying with it through a long close-up. Still in (extreme) close-up, the camera moves slowly through the environment, lingering over each object it frames for an almost interminable period. When it finally pulls back to a medium shot, the viewer realizes with a shock that the entire scene has shifted.
The powerful sense of defamiliarization that Robbe-Grillet's novel achieves, its ability to make the common seem suddenly strange and alien, is one which might be usefully re-conceived in terms of an electronic hypertext. If changes between nodes occurred randomly and invisibly at suitable points, the reader would experience a seemingly unified text, but each path would be different. The narrative would thus change from reading to reading without the reader actually knowing how or in exactly what way it has changed. The nagging sense of deja vu which Robbe-Grillet's novel engenders would thus be accentuated. As a hypertext, the infinite labyrinth which the author uses as a metaphor for reading itself would find its perfect formal complement.