Experimental road trip: Mobile by Michel Butor

Freedomland prospectus:
“Excitement! Adventure! Education!
Cross the centuries from Colonial New England to the pioneer West, from the Mexican border towns to the Great Lakes ports, from Cape Canaveral to the Northwest Passage! Chug the picturesque Old West on an early iron horse, explore the Northwest in a fur trapper’s canoe, soar 70 feet above the earth in a mine oar bucket . . . tour through America’s waterways and wilderness on the most thrilling new rides ever designed!
Over forty authentic themes to make history live again at Freedomland! . . .”


As I write this, the 45th President of the United States has been in office for just over two weeks. Watching the country of my birth from north of the 49th parallel where I have lived since I was three years old, it does feel as if one has wandered into the freak show tent at the Circus-at-the-End-of-the-World. Reading Michel Butor’s Mobile at this moment in American history, frames much of what we are currently watching unfold from an eerie perspective. When the French avant-garde writer was travelling the newly connected highways of America in 1959, he could not have known how very timely all the pieces of information he was gathering, fragmenting, and reconstructing into this ambitious experimental work would still seem more than half a century on. Or perhaps he did. In much of today’s rhetoric, it sounds as if there is a desire to return to some ideal USA, but if Mobile is any indication, that ideal never existed. It is a myth, like the many myths celebrated and reproduced at the grand, but very short-lived, Freedomland Amusement Park.

mobileSubtitled “A novel” in the Dalkey Archives edition I read, the original subtitle offers a more accurate indication of the project at hand: Study for a Representation of the United States. Butor draws from a wide range of materials to create, or allow for the creation of, a representational framework for looking at America. He incorporates substantial excerpts from the writings of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, reports from the Salem witch trials, traditional and treaty records from Native American history, newspaper accounts of the 1893 World’s Fair and more, but one cannot emerge from this journey without an appreciation of an expansive land, rich in history, natural beauty, and diversity.

As eclectic and idiosyncratic as the nation he is attempting to capture, Mobile reads more like a poem than any manner of traditional textual prose. Even the larger textual pieces are broken up and juxtaposed against other materials including an extensive collection of place names, signs, facts, ethnic newspaper and radio programming, travel boards, catalogue descriptions, Audubon bird portraits, and Howard Johnson ice cream flavours. There is a rhythm and an awareness of pattern that binds the work together within a strict overarching structure. He follows an alphabetic rather than geographic guideline from state to state, plays up the seemingly endless recurrence of place names, and links sections across time zones:

The sea,


razor clams,


littleneck clams,

                    Washington clams

A white Oldsmobile driven by a young, tanned white man in a pineapple-colored shirt with coffee polka dots (55 miles), “How much longer? Two hours?”—Dead Indian and China Hat Mountains.

The sparkling snow.

SPRINGFIELD. . . . and three o’clock in

SPRINGFIELD, Mountain Time, on the desert plain of the Snake River,
near the lava fields,


                     already four in
SPRINGFIELD, Central Time, where you can order black-currant ice
cream in the Howard Johnson Restaurant.

The Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
“The New York World,” April 9, 1893:
“Ward McAllister has given careful attention to the question of how New York society will be treated in Chicago during the World’s Fair. He is disposed to think that fashionable persons in this city need not fear anything but the best treatments at the hands of Chicagoans . . .”
Quoted by John Szarkowski: “The Idea of Louis Sullivan.”

The trains coming from New York.
The trains leaving for San Francisco.

Dedicated to Jackson Pollock, Mobile is often described as an unclassifiable work. It is clearly not a study in the formal sense of the word, though by standing back from the flow of fragments, a picture of the country emerges in the patchwork text. There is the sense that Butor harvested this wide range of sources and arranged them to allow the rhythm and flow of language paint a colourful portrait of the United States. It feels dynamic, natural, even when it is the intentional cleverness and humour that catches your eye. But then, it is this same playfulness that makes Mobile such a wonderfully fun read. I especialy enjoyed his use of catalogue listings, as in this pairing of an advertisement for paint-by-number kits with the description of a set of panties:

 “…With this set you receive two Rembrandt water-colors. Panels in pairs, 40 oil-colors in vacuum-sealed glass jars, four superior quality, washable brushes. Net weight: six pounds. . . .”

Or, through Sears, Roebuck & Co., and assortment of seven knitted nylon or rayon panites artistically embroidered with the days of the week:

                      “. . . Choose from

– white for Sunday,

                      – The Last Supper, with The Sermon on the Mount,

– yellow for Monday,

                     – Autumn Landscape, with The End of the Day,

– blue for Tuesday,

                      – Sunset at Sea, with Homecoming,

– pink for Wednesday,

                     – Thoroughbred, with The Foxhunt,

– white for Thursday,

                     – Scenes from Swan Lake, ballet,

– green for Friday,

                     – Venus and Adonis.”

– black for Saturday,
“please include hip measurements,”

This book is not, of course, all light and fun. There are deeply disturbing passages. Segregation is still a reality in many regions (“For whites only”), and the selections from Thomas Jefferson’s writing on the intrinsic inferiority of the black and red races are uncomfortable to read. In the light of the current concern about migrants, the ethnic and cultural diversity captured on Butor’s travels are telling (The Arabs who read “As-Sameer,” The Armenians who read Gochtnag,” The Chinese who read “China Tribune.”) Yet it is all bound together through the repetition of place names from state to state, and the famed ice cream selection at that classic highway stalwart of the era, Howard Johnsons. In the end, filtered through the lens of an outsider, Mobile succeeds in tracing a fractured songline across the heartland of America.


Mobile is translated by Richard Howard and published by Dalkey Archive Press with a fascinating introduction by John D’Agata.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

23 thoughts on “Experimental road trip: Mobile by Michel Butor”

    1. It is very experimental but a fun and fascinating read. I found myself googling some of the historical information like Freedomland—what a bizarre enterprise that was! i tried to capture some of the feel of the book in the quotes (as well as I could format them on WordPress).


  1. I’ve read comparisons of this to both Ann Quin’s Tripticks (also available from Dalkey) and Alan Burns’s Dreamerika! (now woefully out of print, but soon to be available as part of a Burns omnibus reprint by Verbivoracious Press). There seems to have been a minor tradition of European avant-garde writers traveling through America in the post-WWII boom years and then whipping up their experiences into a frothy surrealist collage of cut-up prose. I’ll have to check this one out– thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The raw material America offers is so tempting, I can imagine the appeal. Having taken many road trip across the States with my parents in the 1960s and early 70s this book evokes some images I remember so well. Especially the repeating place names and the 28 flavours of ice cream at Howard Johnsons!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this kind of book — “Mobile reads more like a poem than any manner of traditional textual prose. Even the larger textual pieces are broken up and juxtaposed against other materials including an extensive collection of place names, signs, facts, ethnic newspaper and radio programming, travel boards, catalogue descriptions, Audubon bird portraits, and Howard Johnson ice cream flavours.” Not instead of traditional narrative but as well as. There’s room for all and Dalkey Archive is to be commended for publishing this. And is it the poet Richard Howard? Must be — he translated lots of French poets.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is quite wonderful. It was recommended by a friend as inspiration for a planned experimental project I want to create salvaging material from my father’s collection of classic Russian lit.


  3. I wonder why writers like Butor and Tournier (who I’ve been looking at in my search for books published in 1967) seem to have largely faded from memory in the English-speaking world (though Robbe-Grillet much less so). It would be interesting to know how they are regarded in France.
    Reading your review reminded me of Nocilla’s Dream – a more recent experimental European novel set in the US.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is my first experience with the Nouveau Roman school. The friend who recommended it is quite a fan and also really liked Nocilla’s Dream (which I have on an e-reader but haven’t read yet).


    2. I don’t run into literary circles, I just know common book lovers. I’ve never heard any of them talking about a book by Michel Butor. I know the name as being in the Nouveau Roman school. That’s all.

      Michel Tournier is mostly known for Vendredi ou la vie sauvage, a children version of Robinson Crusoe. It’s frequently read in class in collège for students who are 11 to 13 years old.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I find this Nouveau Roman school daunting. I’ve never tried any of their books. But this one is very tempting.

    PS : “unclassifiable work” is often called “un OVNI littéraire” in French, meaning “a literary UFO”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have a friend who is a big fan of this school but until Butor I hadn’t read anything. This is quite experimental in structure and was recommended to me because I want to do something a little like this with my father’s Russian literature collection (building a tribute to him with language “salvaged”from his favourite books). But I have to admit, the best part of Butor was the way it reminded me of endless road trips across the States when I was a child.


  5. BUTOR

    How many of you have read
    Michel Butor’s great book, MOBILE
    How many have watched
    This great kaleidoscope unfold
    As we move everywhere
    In the USA
    In the history of the USA
    As we listen to Jefferson
    Arguing for the inferiority
    Of black Americans
    As we listen to Benjamin Franklin
    (“Serious Religion, under its
    Various Denominations, is
    Not only tolerated, but
    Respected and practised”)
    As we listen to the innumerable
    Howard Johnson flavors
    Of ice cream
    As we find out about
    Clinton’s in Los Angeles
    As we hear what time it is
    In Alabama
    In California
    As we end (brilliantly)
    With the word BUFFALO
    How many of you have encountered
    Mind in motion
    In this way
    The “road”
    Finding an advertisement for
    Panties, a different color for
    Each day of the week
    (White for Sunday)
    Seeing the night sky
    With special clarity
    (“The brilliant night full of stars…The clear night”)
    Watching the auto-mobiles
    Naming them
    Naming the birds he sees
    (Remembering the extinct
    Passenger pigeon
    “They were massacred during the 19th century
    By businessmen who wanted to exploit them
    To the dead voices
    Telling us who we are

    Liked by 1 person

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