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Friday, August 17, 2012

Life, a User's Manual by Georges Perec

In the introduction, Perec spends some time meditating on the art of puzzle-making.  Not the commercial, mass-produced puzzles of today, but real, hand-carved, no-two-are-alike wooden puzzles.  The puzzle carver will put a great deal of thought into every single piece, cutting the pieces not only into shapes that reflect the puzzle's theme and the future constructor, but also into shapes that will trick and mystify her.  Each piece, in fact, will be its own little work of art.

That's what this book is.  Perec, a member of Oulipo, has created a verbal jigsaw puzzle which depicts every room in a Parisian apartment building on June 23, 1975, just before 8 p.m.  As the narrative moves from room to room, describing its contents or the people who are in there at that moment or who once lived there or who had an encounter with the inhabitants, the reader tries to "piece" these vignettes all together, to see what relation, if any, each chapter will have to a puzzle-maker's revenge promised in the first chapter.

But that description almost places too much emphasis on the mystery, as such, because the vignettes also stand on their own.  The book is filled with stories, summaries, lists, advertisements, articles, recipes, puzzles, mathematical equations, descriptions of paintings, and mini character studies, covering every aspect of life -- birth, death, love, hatred, passion, revenge, good, evil, banality, redemption, success, failure, betrayal, and hope.

That's the remarkable thing.  There is so much in this book on every level, that if ever a work cried out for annotation, this is it (Perec does include a plan of the building, a chronology, a list of stories told, and a detailed index, all of which I appreciated).  There are a host of  allusions, quotations, puns, and general cleverness, some of which get lost in translation and most of which I missed entirely. There are meta elements, such as one character planning a painting which is in fact a visual representation of what Perec has written, and Perec deliberately adding a failure to his work to mirror the failure of a major project in the narrative.  And then there is the structure itself, which Perec imposed for his own benefit, not ours.  Perec's narrative moves through the building, ten stories by ten rooms (including the stairwell), via the knight's tour.  He also used a Graeco-Latin square to govern what lists and objects each room got (a process I still don't fully understand). 

But even without all this, the stories stand on their own as a meditation on humanity.  It's not necessary to understand what Perec was doing to enjoy the book (case in point -- I learned most of the structural aspects not from reading the text but from Wikipedia).  It is a truly remarkable book, one which I will be reading over and over.


  1. I have wanted to read that since the 1980s. It still holds up... that is comforting!

  2. Oh, it is a masterpiece. Except for some seventies-tastic decor Perec describes, I found the story timeless.