As the Internet Jealously Watches You — Matthew Turner

An essay on Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet

Jealousy (adjective)

1. Jealousy is the feeling of anger or bitterness which someone has when they think that another person is trying to take a lover or friend, or a possession, away from them.

2. Jealousy is the feeling of anger or bitterness which someone has when they wish that they could have the qualities or possessions that another person has.

— Collins English Dictionary

Of the many obituaries written for Alain Robbe-Grillet after his death in 2008 there was one curious omission: his writing. Many critics instead chose to concentrate on his film work, relegating the fiction to an obscure and deformed monster, leaving his writing on the wall — or more specifically, how he wrote the walls and surfaces — to be layered over with multiple strata of wallpaper. Now is an appropriate time, however, to redecorate, and to allow his work to emerge from beyond the peeling wallpaper, textually wrapping around us and delineating the environment of the moment we inhabit.

In The Voyeur, arguably Alain Robbe-Grillet’s most famous work, his protagonist perambulates an island to which he is simultaneously arriving and leaving, an ambiguity of time mirrored by the waves and breakers surrounding it that similarly wash up currents of fluidly fragmented memory seamlessly into the text — often pulsing the narrative forward and then allowing it to slip back under the surface again. In a similar fashion the water is still the same, but the way his fictions rework and outline the coastlines of our imaginations, with their undercurrent and eddies, has changed. They recede, washing away to concretely reveal the reality of the digital spaces we inhabit, a ‘reality’ that the writer’s detractors often argued his novels did not represent.

01.floor plan

1. Floor plan of the house where the main events in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy occur

All this amorphous imagery is the experience of the online world, that digital realm — ‘realm’ because it’s a space, a country, a continent, of its own — the stuffy, smoky bar in which we spend too much time, with regulars whom we know too much about, including, if they are in fact, regular. The digital is also a fluid boundary like the waters of time and space that constantly remold the island of a sociopathic mind in The Voyeur. Modulating and borderless, it’s terrifying. And it’s perhaps from this that our current anxieties about people crossing borders emerge from, and not — as the conceit often goes — from people themselves.

02.fluid floor plan2. A fluid floor plan

Despite its fluid and intensive boundaries, it’s Robbe-Grillet’s other great work, Jealousy, more so than The Voyeur, which really captures the Internet’s anxious and jealous gaze over our everyday reality — all of which is captured through a matching set of spatial experiences. Much like the digital realm, the well-ordered linear construct of a novel we are usually accustomed to is corrupted, instead, Jealousy projects constantly changing gradients and weather systems of tacit meanings and inferences, in both its characters’ personalities and environments. Most symptomatic in the strict geometry, usually the antithesis of emotion, Robbe-Grillet utilizes as his main form of expression that eventually melts under the weight of his perennial repetitions. Weather is never fixed, it’s always slipping from one state to another, ‘between’ but never ‘at’. Likewise, Grillet’s characters and narrators (and weather presenters alike) will never state ‘it will rain’, only ‘growing brighter’ or ‘becoming windier’; the liminal point of transition in a character is usually implied like this, through an amorphous sleight of hand, rather than direct expression. Again, allowing the spatial construct of the novel to chime with the origins of cyberspace and its early conceptions as a method with which to predict weather conditions.

03.the shadow3. The terrace and the shadow from a column which demarcates the time signature of Jealousy

Reading Jealousy you will never be told, for the example, ‘Character X is anxious’ as is typical of many novels; conversely, Robbe-Grillet animates inanimate objects and pulls them into the vortex of the novels changing weather system, becoming nebulous they deform in relation to often increasingly knotted and burning synapses. In one section, the protagonist is inspecting through a window a car in the driveway, before a fault in the glass warps the scene ‘changing its shape as well as its dimension: it swells from right to left, shrinks in the opposite direction,’ Without any artificial abstraction the view becomes a boil that moves in and out of focus, morphing into different strenuous, bulging and ballooning forms, before disappearing all together, or more precisely, a phantom aneurysm, a hot bubble of jealous poison popping in the turbulence of the character’s psyche.

04. diningroomdoor4. The window through which the protagonist watches the scene of the car

05.viewthroughthewindow5. The changing shape of the view through the window due to an imperfection of the glass

In her recent novel ‘Break.Up’, Joanna Walsh speculates that stalking is no longer the preserve of dirty-crotched-anorak-clad perverts hiding in the bushes with telephoto lenses, but something everyone engages with as they innocently track the intimate movements of people they barely know online. A process that is consequently reflected back at us by the disembodied algorithms of the Internet itself, as it converts our personal data into capital. The unseen and unknown protagonist of Jealousy is similarly stalking his wife through the noir interiors of their house located in the middle of a tropical banana plantation. Whether anything happens at all in Jealousy is a point of ambiguity, however the clue to this lack of concrete occurrences is in the title. As with most instances of being jealous, and unproductively scrolling twitter perhaps, there is an obsession with acts that aren’t really happening, and probably never will. In this case, the thing, the void, which may or may not have happened, is an affair between his wife identified only as ‘A…’ and a neighbouring plantation owner called Franck.

06. abedroom6. A…’s bedroom and the shadows she uses to hide from her husband’s gaze

In an attempt to palliate this jealousy, to control the situation — or at least, create the illusion of control — he throws a taming grid over the environment that plagues him with angst, and describes, measures and orders it in obsessive and meticulous detail. In the same way the Internet scrutinizes us, he wants to see something inherently subjective as an objective, an inanimate artefact to be compartmentalised, syncopated and examined from a distance. As the book develops, the same scenes are repeatedly described, in increasing levels of resolution, as the protagonist goes over the situation in his mind. Details change and — instead of being supplementary to the main events — become the whole, carving out the clandestine sexual tension between A… and Franck. These minor discrepancies between the minutely dissimilar, draw in the reading eye with the same speed as a glance noticing a ladder in the Teflon grid of a new pair of tights at the scene of a murder. The effect gives Robbe-Grillet the ability to amplify details so that they cast their giant shadows over the complete view — maybe the crux of capturing lived experience. He refracts a speck of dust into an irruption of a geological fault line, or a pinprick into a bomb blast in a bookshop, splintering its multifarious pure Euclidean grids of shelves. Trauma, after all — whether the trauma of violence, or being jealous — is always hidden in these usually uncommunicative and barely perceptible details anyway.

07. trees 027. The obsessive nature of the protagonist’s mental state manifests itself most intensely in his descriptions of the banana tree layout around the house

08.alllayers8. Excessive detail and information accumulating to veil the protagonist’s view of the suspected affair

09. alllayerszoom9. A detail emerging from the layers

By the end of the novel it’s not a realistic description of the environment we have in front of us, only the interference between their conflicting portrayals — a ghost space lurking under the strata of excess data. An environment built from blind spots; a tectonic of anxiety, trauma and obsession — all things that can rarely be looked at directly are examined obliquely in this way in order not to militate our emotional reaction to them. Rather than obsessive descriptions of repeated details creating a clearer and more controlled grip on the situation, the vast coral reefs of visual data the protagonist collects as he roves through the house, actually erode themselves, and instead of creating clarity they psychologically veil the events. The same can be seen in the Internet, in how it gives access to ever accumulating vast swathes of information regarding all manner of subjects, yet instead of capturing a more crystalline perfect image of the outside world that it believes it documents, watches or stalks so perfectly, it has too much information to paint its picture. The Internet’s obsessive gaze over our lives and histories also has no anchor point to pull its vision into focus, as with jealousy, where a fixed point of evidence or conference is always illusive, meaning those who suffer from it only dive deeper into the details of their compulsion.

10. Alternate floor plans of the house carved from the discrepancies of their descriptions

Most of the book’s meaning comes not from what is read and imagined, but the way in which, in plain sight, it hides and erases itself in different variations on this theme; for Robbe-Grillet, the act of deletion is a crucial gesture of creation, working like a set of multiple interlocking erasure pieces by Robert Rauschenberg. Not only does this happen with what the lead character sees, the affair he is suspicious of is invisible along with the environment it supposedly occurs in after his maniacal calculations, but with the narrator himself — whom we never see: a complete void, or a glitch. In his state of extreme jealousy, he uses the energy usually preserved for the conception of the self on the object of his mania, ‘A…’ his wife. And when the grip on oneself is absent or deferred in this way, reality is lost and the situation is further intensified. The Internet too, is configured in a similar way. It focuses on increasingly individualised user experience, yet the Internet itself, as a body, is a mere unaccountable spectre.

11. diningroom11. The scene in the dining room is repeated many times and this contains yet more deletions as ‘A…’ orchestrates the movement of an extremely bright oil lamp. At first it slices away, through overexposure, parts of her suspected lover, but she moves the lamp to the other side of the room where it bleaches him out completely.

12. centipededetail12. dining room interior12. The dining room and the shift of view towards the centipede on the wall which is subsequently killed by Franck

Despite the sinister negative spaces the protagonist cuts through the novel, his traces and pressure points are gradually unearthed — a void that is, counter to usual logic, constantly present in how his eyes coat every millimetre of each surface. The Internet could also be identified as the same species of void, namely, what is known as a ‘hyperobject’: a thing that surrounds us, envelops and entangles us, but that is too big to be seen in its entirety. Hyperobjects can only be perceived through their influence on the world, how they imprint themselves on other things. In the manner of how we see the protagonist optically touch the texture of surfaces like the footprints left by an animal that is carefully being tracked; a table laid for three people, yet only two are ever present; three chairs set out on the veranda with two sitters described and how A… hides from her husband in the shadows of her bedroom. Again, both are an unseen landscape of moral accountability.

The protagonist, like the Internet, is a hyperobject, meaning that he perpetually has the potential to be present, watching, imprinting himself and surveying. Miming the prison guard in the middle of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, whom we have to presume is constantly observant because we can’t see him. Both the Internet and the protagonist of Jealousy do not attempt control through strict boundaries, but instead, through how their controlling gaze infiltrates all the crevices of life like smog. Ultimately, however, as we have seen, the polyvocity of information received by these ubiquitous eyes is entropic.

13.lamp13. The bright light that invariably reveals and conceals characters in Jealousy, also shown is the flight of the mosquitoes around it

It’s difficult to draw out the edge of the digital (that magical pencil is yet to be invented), and it often means that the borders into our personal spaces are regularly breached. Jealousy, however, manages to measure such a chaotic, fluid, shape-shifting and iridescent oil slick and sculpts it into a recognisable form to be critically accessed. Robbe-Grillet’s writing could now become a new gradient of measure against which to test the digital, to give it structure so we can understand its labyrinthine architecture and see it various ailments and illnesses — enabling the reader to see the culpability of the digital when its immateriality often means it slips through the net of right and wrong.

Data and how it behaves is difficult to understand in its natural environment. It requires someone to sculpt it into a form that anyone can discern — into recognisable buildings, streets, alleyways, bedrooms and bathrooms. Jealousy writes the walls of the digital and solidifies its architecture — both the spaces of digital bodies and the experience of the world it creates — so we can see it coalesce, examine its borders, and regain control over it. And it’s not only in content that the book ameliorates the experience of inhabiting the digital realm, but the slow and careful reading required for Robbe-Grillet’s work allows for the development of a new rhythm of elaboration, one that slows down sequentially, heals us from the blistering acceleration of the contemporary world and locates us within a new tempo of psychological movement.

Any architecture, whether it’s the material structures we walk through everyday or the immaterial manifestations of the digital realm we take a scroll through, is inherently jealous in its relentless attempts to shackle the untameable movements and thoughts of people. Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet is a near perfect delineation of the sensation of jealousy in human terms, while at the same time, unintentionally, capturing the jealous spaces and gazes the Internet and its related manifestations ensnare us within. As the Internet jealousy watches you, do you ever wonder what exactly it is jealous of?

Matthew Turner is a writer living in London. He studied at University College London and is now working as writer and assistant editor for LOBBY magazine while also teaching at Chelsea College of Arts. His first novella Other Rooms will be published by Hesterglock Press in 2019.