Topology of a Phantom City by Alain Robbe-Grillet

I love this book.

I’m not sure what it’s about.

But I do  have five theories.

Theory #1:  A murder has taken place.  The narrator describes the crime scene like a detective who does not know which bit of evidence will prove relevant.  So the detective/narrator writes everything down without filtering his senses or his thoughts.  The result appears random the way notes often do.   The detective/narrator continues to record details moving outwards from the scene of the crime to the neighboring area, eventually throughout the entire city itself.

Nothing moves much.  What movement there is resembles the movement in a still photograph.  We can tell that this person was walking when the photograph was taken, though he is motionless in the photograph itself.  The novel becomes a series of crime scene photographs which we are  supposed to assemble to determine what happened.

Theory #2:  A group of young women, prisoners in the city jail, are playing with a deck of Tarot cards.  The narration moves from the real city into the phantom one depicted in the illustrations on the Tarot cards.  The subsequent  murders take place in an imagined world inside the imagined world of the novel.  Are the girls imagining the crimes–their own or ones they were the victims of–or is the narrator at work through them.  The crimes take on the mythic properties associated with Tarot cards.

Theory #3:  The murderer is a photographer.  He lures his victims to his studio where they pose for him, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups.  He reviews the photographs afterwards.  These become the book itself, a series of photographs presented to the reader by the killer/photographer/narrator who took them.  Like an artist would, the narrator shows us only what he wants us to see.  We must fill in the missing details, infer his true intentions, his motives, his character.

Theory #4:  There has been only one murder.  The variations presented to the reader are each ways to interpret the evidence the detective/narrator has gathered.  The crime could have happened this way, or this way, or this way.  The novel is an obsessive examination of the same event from many possible angles.  A search for truth that has no ending.  This is similar to the structure Mr. Robbe-Grillet’s novel Jealousy which I reviewed here.

Theory #5:  The reader is the killer.  The detective presents us the still pictures of the novel which make little sense because our own psychology has become too disturbed to understand our own actions any longer.  We’ve no memory of committing any of the crimes depicted.  We’ve nothing left to help us make sense of our world except a series of images with no clear connection to each other.   How could we have done it if we don’t remember it?  How can we make sense of the evidence the narrator shows us if he does nothing but wait for us to explain it all, to confess?

Of these five, I think theory #2 is least likely to hold up under cross examination.  I suspect theory #3 is closest to the author’s intention.  But I’m starting to like theory #5 the most.

Whichever interpretation is right or best, the fact remains that Topology of a Phantom City is a mystery novel about interpretation. There is no solution.  Just evidence readers can use to come up with their own theories about what happened and about who done it.

I loved it.


It’s been over five years since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B.  I admit it, I have no memory of this book except for this review.  Based on this review, it sounds like a book I would love.  I went through a brief Alain Robbe-Grillet phase that year, read quite a few, loved them all, understood very little.  I’ve saved them to re-read in retirement when I’ll have more time to figure them or. Or I just may be wondering what the heck is going on at age 62, like I did when I was 47.