Georges Perec’s Life, A User’s Manual

“Hold infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour”

-William Blake

Begin anywhere. Take the first object that happens to catch your eye and describe it in exacting detail. Then take each one of these details and think about all the other things they connect to – facts, stories, anecdotes, histories, people. Beginning to get really long, isn’t it? Never mind. Now think about the person the object belongs to. The story of his or her life – all the people he or she has known, all the experiences he or she has had. Next, think about all those people, and all the objects and places associated with those experiences. Feeling overwhelmed yet? And you’ve only got as far as one object in one room. Think about all the other objects in the room. Think about all the other rooms in the building. Think about all the other buildings in the city. It’s an endless exercise, this. And well might it be, for what you’re describing here is not the life of one place or one time or one person; what you’re describing here is Life itself.

That’s the central insight behind Georges Perec’s fascinating novel Life, A User’s Manual (first published in 1978). Perec’s idea is simple – since Life itself is ultimately infinite, the best a writer can do is to select and capture some small part of it. And since every object, however quotidian, connects to a myriad other things, and since every person, however ordinary, contains within him or her the seeds of a thousand stories, a detailed description of just a few people and the objects they own may be enough to approximate the essence of all our lives. What Perec is after, then, is the quasi-statistical Everyman, and if his near obsession with specifics seems somewhat trifling, that to, in its own way, is true to Life, because isn’t life itself made up of precisely such trivialities?

Perec’s method then is a sort of ‘realistic magic’, the antithesis of the magic realism of Marquez and Kundera. While the magic realists create fables that reflect reality, Perec goes the other way, exploring the Pascalian infinity of the minutiae that make up our everyday reality, and discovering in it the truly magical.

But the pursuit of detail does not, by itself, solve the problem. If Life is infinite, then seeking to describe it through detail merely shifts the problem of description to one of choice. Which details should we pick, what people shall we describe? Perec’s solution is as simple as it is elegant – since every detail and every person is equally eligible, the writer simply imposes an arbitrary frame on Life, thus creating a structure that is as playful as it is random, but that allows him to limit the field of his enquiry, while continuing to suggest the endless variety that lies beyond.

In Life, A User’s Manual, this structure takes the shape of a ten story apartment. Perec takes us through this building systematically, room by room, describing a) what the room looks like, b) what is happening in the room presently, c) the histories of the people who live in these rooms d) their relation to other people living in the building e) stories of people who used to live in this room before the current residents, and so on. We thus get to see both Life as something lived in the immediate present and Life as the stock of all the diverse experiences that go into the making of a single adult human being.

At the centre of this narrative is an eccentric millionaire, who has devised a grand scheme involving the painting of 500 seascapes, the conversion of these seascapes into jigsaw puzzles, and the solution of these puzzles followed by the destruction of each painting forever. By implementing this plan, the millionaire hopes to live out his entire life in challenging pursuits, without leaving anything behind him to show for it once he is dead. It’s an altogether remarkable idea, and a quintessentially Perec-ian one.

These two conceits – the use of the building as a structuring device, and the recurring motif of the jigsaw puzzles, echoed so brilliantly by the way the novel slowly fleshes out the lives of its characters, form the core of this remarkable novel, around which Perec spins a great variety of stories and ideas. One of the more exciting things about the novel is the way it encapsulates so many different styles, swinging from the tragic to the comic, from the casually entertaining to the profound, from the aesthetic to the philosophical, from the heroic to the melancholy and from the reality of the everyday to the stuff of legend and fable. The comparison to Proust is inevitable, given the appetite of the project, but Perec’s writing here recalls a number of other masters – each chapter of the novel, being, in itself, a stand alone piece. There is the urban drama of O. Henry and Cheever, wild and exotic adventures a la Maupassant, and the quiet humanism of Chekhov. The overall result is of viewing a vast and richly embroidered tapestry, where every stitch requires careful perusal, and gives cause for admiration.

One consequence of this baroque quality of the book is that it rewards, even demands, re-reading. For all its surface simplicity, this is a fiendishly devious and complex novel, which bristles with a thousand obliquities, a hundred little tricks of formal technique. It is a puzzling novel – not in the sense that it’s difficult to understand, but because there are, hidden within it, scores of little clues that challenge the reader to search beyond the easy flow of Perec’s stories. The joke that Perec is playing on us is that all the fine prose in his novel, all the riveting tales he tells us, are, in a way, merely camouflage, behind which lurks a larger plan that constantly evades us and that we discern, if at all, very gradually. Every time you read this novel you discover things that you had missed, and come away from each reading with a different and deeper understanding. And that, more than anything else, makes this novel truly Life-like.

Overall then, Georges Perec’s Life, A User’s Manual is an astounding achievement, one that I strongly recommend to anyone interested in the use of formal structures, realism, short stories, writing, or people. Or just Life itself.

(For more on Georges Perec, see here)

[Originally posted at Hafta]