Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Abandoning novels feels sort of cruel, like letting a whole bunch of people just fade out of your life without trying hard enough to get to know them, so generally speaking if I get past the first chapter I won't give up on a novel. It does happen though: Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire and Marcel Proust’s The Guermantes Way come to mind. At least my abandoned novels are fairly diverse. With regret, 200 pages in, I’m adding Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual to the melancholy little list.

Life is an account of a single day in a Parisian apartment block. The chapters move through the buildings from room to room in the way a chess-piece knight moves across a board. Fragments of information about the occupants’ stories appear alongside descriptions of objects filling the rooms. Stories spill out: an account of a painting can explain the story depicted, the life of the artist or a historical event tenuously connected to the picture.

In reading I was torn between frustration at meeting yet another description of a table or empty room and intrigue at how all these stories might fit together. Perec treats the building like a mystery plot with a single figure at the heart of it, the artist Bartlebooth. Ultimately, the descriptions became too much. May the gods of reading forgive me, but I looked up the plot on Wikipedia to decide whether or not to keep going. The plot is this: Bartlebooth spent 20 years travelling and painting ports, then got these pictures turned into jigsaws. He spent the rest of his life putting the jigsaws back together. Once the image is assembled he destroys it, so nothing remains of his art. But tragically for Bartlebooth, he runs out of time and a few paintings are left behind when he dies.

This is just too contrived to bear. I guess Perec wishes to make a point about life, how we fill it up with things, things remain and we don’t. Alongside the persistence of things, presumably there is the meaningless interconnectedness of life, like Derridean philosophy: every thing is known only by its relations to all the things it is not, identity being nothing more than a network of absence or non-identity. Yes, I’m hoping that flippantly misusing Derrida absolves me for abandoning this novel.

Years ago I read Perec’s A Void, a novel written without ever using the letter e. Writing under such a constraint is some feat in French, a language heavy in e’s, and the translator did a superb job replicating the game in English. But Perec is so absorbed in tricks, life finds no way into the novels. Lots of blurbs on Life: A User’s Manual compare it to Ulysses, but the comparison makes no sense to me. Every word of Joyce’s thrums with vitality, but Perec’s novel felt stifled by its rules and, finally, stifling.

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