“Surveillance” was written using a systematic process. Both Robinson and Zweig, reading whatever books they found interesting (fiction, non-fiction), collected phrases, 19 at a time, sending them to each other. Each set of 38 phrases became a chapter. Using a variety of rules to control the creation of the text, Robinson and Zweig had to use all 38 phrases. Thus, in any given chapter, repetitions in language are hidden in the text as a structural skeleton. One of the strengths of this process is how the plot, characters, descriptions (which have often been planned in advance) are subverted by the necessities of the found phrases. Pushing against the will of the writer, the language forces digressions; or the writer pushes back insisting on characters, plot, descriptions.
The narrator, living in a duplex, believes that her next door neighbor has committed a crime (perhaps a murder or the sexual torture of women). One day, walking out of her back door, she enters a red barn that she has noticed but never entered. Once in the barn, she discovers a small hole through which she can spy on her neighbor. She is joined by her friend, Jim, who helps her to build optical devices to improve her surveillance activities. Meanwhile, another friend, Marilyn, who has suffered a concussion that has made her psychic, begins to travel towards the barn, hoping to arrive in time to warn Jim and the narrator of danger. The identity of the narrator is not simple; all of the characters seem sometimes to be part of a fractured self. Even Gary and the mysterious women he might or might not have imprisoned in his house are part of the self of the watchers.
In Part II, the narrator finds herself naked and a prisoner in a completely empty room without windows or doors. Then the rooms progressively change: objects appear, a door, a window. She is bothered by the voices of three characters: Anise, Mercury, and the Technician. Unsure whether these voices come from outside or inside her head, she tries to communicate with them, hoping that they are her rescuers and not her captors. In Part III, the narrator finds herself back at the barn. Everything that she thought had happened before her imprisonment is proved false or in doubt and the circle of confusion and ambiguity begins again.
EXCERPT FROM PART 1, CHAPTER 1 OF SURVEILLANCE
Because I lived in a highly contaminated inner world, I hadn’t noticed the barn for the first few months of my stay in upstate New York. The red barn was merely a backdrop for crows and an occasional rabbit; that is, before the incident that foreshadows my obsession with a certain kind of alterity that can only be caused by the play of light and shadow in just such a red barn.
I had every intention of leaving, and with my finger on the map of the city, I was idly inventing neighborhoods in which to live. I had no idea what orgy of treason festered on the other side of my bedroom wall. My neighbor, a large red-faced man named Gary, was known for his complicity with the police in a scandalous gambling den on the south side of town.
When I finally entered the barn, for no other reason than that it was there, I noticed for the first time the invisible nervous presence of the accomplice. Although I had never seen anyone enter the barn, the indentation left by his weight at the end of the sofa haunted me as though someone was almost always looking over my shoulder.
I crouched in the neighborhood of the beckoning cat and stroked him down his silky spine. I remembered my friend Marilyn saying that vision was central to three of her explanations. Marilyn was known for her desire to control everything by rational means, but had suffered from a severe concussion (I found this out afterward); she had intense and unpredictable bouts of dizziness accompanied by blurred vision and irrational insights.
She had told me about a week before I entered the barn that something would happen to me, something very important and startling, at about twenty to six or ten past four. I did not know that she had already decided to leave Paris that evening.
Every time, every day, when I think back to that uncanny concatenation of events, I think of her left eye twitching like it did in the grey light of November when she was about to speak.
I looked at my watch and suddenly remembered that it was in a restaurant that he said it: “The flesh is weak, but can be made to obey.” I’m speaking of his voice, so familiar, like an old 78rpm phonograph record.
It was still dark when I reached my rocks, the ones I had placed carefully on the side of the barn where I had seen the small hole. I knew that I was going to spend a long time in a present fixed with the help of a past.I desperately hoped that Marilyn could hear my thoughts as though they were her own. I thought I heard a sigh, a moan, perhaps a scream, but wasn’t able to interpret it.
EXCERPT FROM PART 1, CHAPTER 9 OF SURVEILLANCE
(The narrator lives in a duplex so she shares a wall with Gary; she can spy on Gary through the hole in the barn. She suspects Gary of murder or torture. Jim comes to help, Marilyn is riding the train trying to get to the barn – both Marilyn and Jim have concussions.)
At approximately 3 p.m., Marilyn got off the train; you couldn’t really say it was beating sun or excessive humidity that caused her to linger at the station. She was seeking a man in the cave of his emaciation.
She imagined it would make a good film: the train pulling away, leaving her on the platform with a round, pink Amelia Earhart suitcase sitting on the ground next to her left foot. Something in the opening credits of the film would imply a semblance of revolution or violence of a political nature. She would be puzzled, looking at what is a far country for her, far from the security of her garden.
Flashbacks to a manicured garden with elaborate surveillance cameras: they are expensive but they work even in the rain and snow. They can hear all we’re saying, Marilyn and I, as we walk into the herbal circle towards a large brass sundial. This is the last day before the end of my visit, before Marilyn is forced to take the train. She writes on a piece of paper:”you won’t be able to stay”.
The path, it wandered, wandered everywhere, into a spiraling configuration of poisonous flowers. I no longer even wanted to commit the crime I had come to believe was politically justified. I was in this film, still alive and breathing. Projectors and screens had invaded the entire space of the house attached to the garden. The light from the projectors, its radiance so cruel, filled every corner of every room.
The opulence and force of this desire to brighten the house with paranoid narratives was the experience that paralleled the necessities of ocular construction in the barn that had become my temporary shelter. In the film, our most intimate pulsations were made manifest, engorging the house with erotic fluids. We wrapped the object that was leaving with the subject that had arrived.
The man Marilyn sought obviously had no power over that absence she had become. On the platform, she exhibited a total, religious voracity to discover if she had disembarked at the right place.
EXCERPT FROM PART 1, CHAPTER 13 OF SURVEILLANCE
(Marilyn discovers to her dismay that she is part train)
Marilyn walked in a fragmentary and stealthy manner over open fields, avoiding highways and cities. Her image, which dissolves in my hands as I write, remained camoflagued by trees heavy with parasitic vines. At night she stretched out in the grass, sleeping peacefully, alert to the sounds of small animals rushing around her head. In her dreams she found she could bind him to ways of thinking and eating that made him easy prey, this man she sought.
She looked for a branch, slender or sturdy, that she could lean on and for defense. Trains frightened her; the distant hum of their iron tongues resonated with her new body in a way that she didn’t understand. She felt her muscles, strong steel frame, and thought: I have had a touch of fever.
If only we had other senses, senses that could inventory the inside of the body, quickly eradicating the foreign substances that lodge themselves there.
She felt that she must be foolishly frightened for no reason. She saw before her a strange hill, dark and pointed, and yearned to climb to its summit. She was quite suddenly there, looking down on a world in which everything is decaying, our world, full of smoke and roaring. Next to her stood a man; and, as if each of them saw something different, they turned slowly toward each other and smiled.
Here was the place where it’s dark and no one speaks.
The man moved his chair so that Marilyn could rest her aching leg. Kneeling beside her, he extracted one by one, his eyes, tongue, and fingers. She thought he must come from what we would now call splinter groups, machines who had become men as she had become part machine. This was a scene to satisfy even the most romantic traveller, as he took her in his arms and caressed her hair with the stumps of his hands. I am rivetted by the mental vision of this woman, my friend, so changed that she would lend herself to this moment of passion with a man who had made himself blind and dumb and insensitive in order to make love to her. When they had exhausted themselves, they lay next to each other on a bed of red flowers and blood red fruit.
EXCERPT FROM PART 1, CHAPTER 19 OF SURVEILLANCE
(The narrator goes out to run errands and returns to find…)
It was late at night when I arrived back at the barn; I entered it reverently and wrapped in silence. I had seen something flutter and land with a wild distracted gesture of fear under the light outside the door, a giant moth as big as my hand settling there to guard the entrance.
When at first I saw Jim lying face up on the ground, I attributed the rapid beating of my heart to the normal effect of nervous disorders of the body. He appeared to have given in to a leaden sleep, falling next to a green suitcase, packed and ready to travel.
I knew that he was dead, that fate had turned and spun the plate slowly, pointing to him. Yet, I could not believe that by going beyond excess, we had arrived at this quiet moment. His body shone with the gleam of a murder. I could tell by the way his large limbs were spread out as though in sleep, by the way his mouth hung open slightly as his eyes stared at an unknown assailant…I could tell he was dead.
Yet, I could not accept it; my voice sounded so strange as I tried to rouse him from this sleep. I was sure he’d been drugged or had suffered another concussion and to appreciate the power of this repetition, I laughed softly to myself in the dim light of that barn. If this is what is involved is gaining access to a secret, I thought, I don’t want any part of it; I don’t want to know.
Then, I heard something which I later identified with an electrical or even mechanical sorrow, tears running down my numb and ravaged face. I began to speak the dread word, “death‚” over and over again out loud. I did not know how to manage the shadows or the terrible sadness this loss would entail. I was dizzy with the vertigo of evil, a kind of bewilderment that crept around like a rat. I asked myself everything difficult, questions like: “are you simply infatuated with a life of humiliation?” As I got up and began to pace, I noticed the shadow of a moving hand.
Marilyn entered the barn, watched me as I tired of these sad mechanical laughs, went straight up to Jim’s body and lay down next to him, imitating the position of his body exactly. I went over to the hole in the wall, where it had all begun, peered out only to see Gary’s window looking small in the distance and somehow irrevocably mundane.
EXCERPT FROM PART 2, CHAPTER 1 OF SURVEILLANCE
…Imagine it …: a room with no windows or doors. Smooth white walls, floor, ceiling. A woman, naked, lying on the floor; then, sitting huddled in a corner; then, pacing, feeling the walls, knocking for hollow places, anything that might provide the zone between life and death. One flourescent light bulb behind a piece of translucent plastic in the ceiling, no switch in the room, nothing to stand on to see if the plastic can be removed. A kidnapping: those who have mapped its path no where in view.
If I had been taken under protest, I would have been imagining my escape. But then, in this room, I felt nothing but a kind of deep apathy (probably the result of the drugs they had given me) and it wasn’t until later that I began to question the puzzle of this room…. There was no way in or out. Now, I think that the only way they could have gotten me into that room was if it was a room whose walls separate absolutely from each other, like the flat modules of a toy house….
I’m certain it was in the quiet room that I heard the sound of wings, of a great bird hitting itself against a window or a wall. Or perhaps a moth as big as the palm of my hand.
I attribute my dream not to death but to sadness. Jim was alive, come back from the dead. I ran over and hugged him, then couldn’t get enough of touching him. I stroked his head and shoulders and arms. No one had told him about the events that had taken place after his death, the memorials, the conversations between friends. I said: “Did you know that when we did the memorial for you in San Francisco, on the leaflet, we used that photograph you had taken of yourself sitting up in a coffin?” “Really,” he said, “no one told me. How wonderful.” Then, I suddenly realized that he must have been buried and I asked him how he got out of the grave. At that moment he turned into Avital Ronell. She was standing, leaning against a pillar. “Bodies are buried in layers in the ground,” she explained, “and they put in these long metal breathing tubes so that the earth can breathe.” She paused, “And something I read recently ruined me for life. Do you know that we fugue into consciousness over and over again after we’re dead?” This dream draped itself over me. I felt clothed.
EXCERPT FROM PART 2, CHAPTER 3 OF SURVEILLANCE
(When the light is on, she wakes to find bread and water; when the lights go out, she sleeps; these routines seem beyond her control)
When the table appeared, it was quite a shock. It had been days since anything new had happened and I was frankly used to the routine. It felt safe. At first, I prowled around that table as if it might explode. Odder still, my bread and water had been left on the floor in the same place as they’d always been. If not for my food, then why the table? It was as though a man had travelled far, running from his worst fears, finally safe where now no horror hounds him, and the simplest object, a table, for example, is more terrible than anything he might have imagined could roar out of his past, barking and growling and biting at his heels. I don’t like dogs.
If I could say to the table, write this in your own words, what story would it tell? For the table was witness to my prowling and to more. I touched its rough surface, put my bread and water on it, spilled a bit of water and wrote my name with it on the top of the table. I stood by it and ate. If I knelt, I could hardly reach the top. I know, I tried it that way too. There was no chair. How strange that in a place where there had been no table and no thought of a table, suddenly there was a need for a chair. Power has consequences; one object imagining another, until they proliferate in a fury of desire.
So, the table became a kind of lover. I curled up under it and imagined that I was safe. I held two of the legs in my hands and tried to reach the other two with my feet. I dreamed that these legs could bend inward and caress me. I thought: “they shall be driven to reconciliation.” I lay splayed beneath the table on my stomach and tried to curl inward still touching the legs. The wood resisted until I had to let go. I curled up into a fetal position and cried for hours. I never woke up under the table, although I spent whole days there, hoping that it would shelter me.
The table had a soft surface, so I tried to scratch it with my nails. I wrote my name repeatedly. Although I knew that there is no obligation for proof of the reality of any object, I insisted on testing the table. I wrote my name so that I could remember it, see it myself. I would wake up and read my name and think, I’m still alive. There is a knife that cuts a letter of hope above the heart. I had only the nails of my fingers that had grown long. I wanted most of all to cut bleeding trails along his back, to wound him when he least expected it.
I thought that if I could injure the table, tear it apart limb by limb, he would never come back. But I also knew that it was impossible for me to commit a suicide of that type. If I destroyed him, who would feed me? I had given up any thought of escape.
So, I cared for the table as if nothing else mattered. I kept it clean, brushed off bits of bread, leaned on it when I was weary, even sat on it from time to time. I washed off my sweat with a portion of my water. I surveyed the table, measured it, noted pertinent details. My only object, it made me think about the possibilities of the physical world, of objects outside my own body. For that I was grateful.
One day, as I was sitting on the table, it occurred to me that I could lie down. I hadn’t done that before. I lay on my back and looked up at the ceiling. At first, I felt a sort of calm. But a word like “calm” seems to pull other words behind it, like “anesthetic” and I felt I was going under. I was in a trance, as though the white walls of my cell had been transformed into the walls of an operating room. I was a person who has nothing and whom nothing holds stable. I was naked to the knife.
I wanted the table to be a bed, a hard bed, but not a floor. I wrenched myself from the dream of the hospital and tried to remember a wrought iron bed, warm under a white down quilt. On top of that, a light quilt with embroidery, in each square something wonderful: a house, a pretty girl, a cat with a ribbon, the word “REST”. I tried to drive through all languages to access that memory, to hold it. But “rest”, led to “lie back” and the piles of white pillows dissolved. My legs were pushed up into the stirrups of the gynecologist’s examining table. He said: “we shall be witnesses to the penetrations of language.” My legs fell open to receive his hands, which probed me, deep inside, until I fainted with the effort of expelling him.
I thought of entering a poolhall. How many women remember that rape as if it happened to them? I was naked on the pool table, vulnerable through beauty. I was naked on the bar. The horror of that rape turned to memories of my own lust. At home, he took me in the kitchen as though I were a meal. And on the hard polished mahogany table, in a long sexual surrender. And the picnic table, how could I ever forget: rushing through the woods in a panic of lust. Passing ridiculous yellow happy faces hanging on the trees. A children’s camp of some sort. And again, I was lying on my back on that picnic table, wanting him so badly I would have done anything, done it anywhere, without caring who saw, who might stumble into us in the forest, who might see what was between my legs and what it wanted, that place that wanted with a passion that had no boundaries.
Were they watching me then. I shudder to remember it. I lay on the table in my prison, without that hard shared lust, without that man to protect me if anyone else came along. With no friends. And I wanted him, wanted all men, wanted my own hands between my legs, and all women too. I bargained trust against trust and came up empty. The erotic powers of the body were renewed. I had to get down from that table, yet I was frozen to the spot. I had created my vulnerability with thoughts only and alone I had to conquer it. Or give in to it. Who knew what would be the better course.
Can you imagine it, where you, tranquil now, perhaps with someone’s head in your lap as you read this, see me lying spread out naked on my table? Yes, my table and his table. The one he had provided for my exposure. I suddenly felt shame. I could no longer touch myself. I feared the eye of the ceiling, the surface of the table, the walls. All had witnessed something so private – not a pornographic episode, no, that wasn’t what it was at all. Don’t accuse me of that. It was a sudden deep awareness of my naked body, open.
And as if you have benefitted from the betrayal of unworthy secrets, you read this and want to enter me, to enter my sealed room, to lie on top of my body, to push something between my legs and feel around inside, to examine the evidence, to solve the crime, to gather all the clues and smell them on your hand afterwards. I’m not talking to my captors only, I’m talking to you. Can I ever get out of this cycle of pornographic repetition, my own dear sexual fantasies? And I thought, as I lay on that table, that I had never been so afraid. Not even when I first woke in the room. For now they had me, open. For you are what divides you, these four walls. But I had lost a sense of who this “you” was, and I rolled off the table, falling with a crash.
My bruises lasted for days. I know that harder days are coming, but I remember when the table first arrived.