The title, with its insipid New Age flavor, is the worst thing about
this bold work of experimental fiction. During the same decade
Georges Perec's novel most famous book was released, the
bestseller charts were filled with novels masquerading as self-
help guides—from Jonathan Livingston Seagull to Zen and the
Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But Life A User’s Manual is not
one of those works.
In fact, this book may claim to be about
'life' but its guiding principle comes from
the inorganic world. Perec presents us
with a history of a building, an apartment
block at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier in the
17th arrondissement of Paris. In this
lengthy novel, Perec takes us room by
room through the building, and over the
course of 99 chapters, each focused on a
different location in these living quarters,
covers the entire structure from top to
bottom. To add to the constraints of this
peculiar narrative, Perec dispenses with
chronology and focuses (except for
flashbacks) on a single moment in time, namely late evening on the
23rd of June, 1975.
So we are best advised to take the novel's title as a joke. Not only
is the 'user’s manual' missing here, but life does not unfold in these
pages; it stands still while we observe a tiny microcosm of civilization
with clinical detachment. The book’s philosophical underpinnings
come not from New Age gurus but the structuralist and post-
modernist currents of the 1970s. Here we see realized in fictive
form the structuralists' interest in the synchronic viewpoint, the
slice-of-time perspective that strips away the noise and tumult of
history and reveals the myriad connecting points that only emerge
when the element of chronology is removed from our consideration.
Here also we encounter, again and again, Saussure's concept of
the arbitrary nature of the sign, the disturbing notion that meaning is,
at its essence, happenstance and imposed by us, not by the world.
Perec's most daring maneuver here is to apply this concept not just to
linguistic signs, but to the philosophical meaning of his characters'
lives and destinies.
Georges Perec's A Void
Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style
Italo Calvino's Winter's Night
This overriding sense of arbitrariness is realized most completely in
the character of Bartlebooth, the wealthy Englishman who emergences
as the central protagonist in a densely populated novel—so crowded
with people and incident that Perec's book comes with a 60-page
index. Bartlebooth has devoted his adult life to a single arbitrary
project, an endeavor devoid of larger meaning and destined to leave
him with nothing to show for the half-century he spends on it. In the
first stage of this project, Bartlebooth devotes a decade to learning
how to paint, and though he has limited talent, his teacher Valène
(another resident of 11 rue Simon-Crubellier) eventually teaches his
wealthy pupil the rudiments of painting watercolor landscapes. In the
second stage, Bartlebooth travels around the world for 20 years with
his servant Smautf, painting a seaside landscape in each of 500
locations. He has these paintings sent back to Paris, where Gaspard
Winckler (also living in the apartment block) turns them into 750-piece
jigsaw puzzles. This sets the stage for the final twenty years of his
project, during which Bartlebooth completes each jigsaw puzzle, has it
glued together and turned it back into a painting—then sends it back
to the location where it was painted. Here it is placed in water with a
detergent solution that washes away the original colors, leaving only
a blank canvas.
In other words, Bartlebooth starts out with empty pictures, and
after a half-century of pursuing his art 'career', ends up with empty
This subplot is not only emblematic of the whole novel, which is
very much like a jigsaw puzzle in its arbitrary construction, but can
also be seen as a commentary on the novelist himself. Georges
Perec, like other members of the Oulipo group founded in 1960, by
Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, was fascinated by
the way arbitrary constraints could serve as a source of literary
inspiration. A decade before he released Life: a User’s Manual,
Perec published A Void, a maddening and richly creative mystery
novel written without the letter 'e' (except for the novelist's name).
Three years later, Perec published a novella, Les revenentes, in
which 'e' is the only vowel found in the work.
Bartlebooth's self-defeating painting project is not the only arbitrary
endeavor in Life A User’s Manual. Elsewhere we learn of Madame
Moreau, a successful entrepreneur, who gives meals that are strictly
color co-ordinated. For example, the 'red meal' given for a visitor
from the Soviet Union includes:
Fillet of Beef Carpaccio
Salad of Three Red Fruits
We also read about a luxury hotel chain that places its new facilities
in 24 cities, chosen so that letters from the locations spell out the
names of the two parent companies in the business. We follow
along with Abel Speiss, whose passion is solving riddles, puzzles
and cryptograms. Again and again, the plot of this novel is driven by
fixations and weird self-imposed tasks. In short, it’s hard to tell who
displays the most acute case of obsessive-compulsive disorder
here: Perec or his characters.
To the extent that this book is a guide to life, it is a guide to failed life.
I suspect that Perec gave us 99 chapters—instead of closing with
the expected 100th—as a reminder that we inevitably fall short of
the imagined symmetry and perfection of our plans. Even arbitrary
projects, he seems to say, can be meaningful in proving our
limitations and frail human nature. Bartlebooth learns this as he
falls further and further behind in his project, and then finds its
completion entirely in jeopardy as he struggles with deteriorating
eyesight and an unexpected adversary who wants to prevent him
from finishing his life’s work.
Perec, too, must break the arbitrary constraints of his writing project.
A completely static chronology can hardly support a novel of this
scope, and our author constantly relies on flashbacks—indeed most
of the book describes incidents and events from the past, the
diachronic again asserting its control of the synchronic. But the
reader can hardly complain, given the rich ingenuity of these stories-
In fact, the biggest surprise of this novel about a building is how
successful it is at presenting such a wide panorama of human
existence. Perec has crammed a entire Comédie humaine into this
one quirky book, with more than a hundred subplots, many of them
capable of sustaining an entire novel on their own. By my measure,
at least a dozen of the passing interludes in this book are compelling
enough to be made into successful motion pictures. Perec gives
us stories of crime, intrigue, romance, adventure and comic
extravagance, and intermixes them with other narratives that are
merely bizarre or grotesque. The end result is that greatest of rarities:
an experimental postmodern novel that is also a riveting page-turner.
I’m reminded of that old throwaway phrase: "If only these walls
could speak." In Life A User’s Manual, Perec allows for exactly that
contingency. The walls of 11 rue Simon-Crubellier finally get a chance
to tell their tale—or tales, as the case may be. And just as we
suspected, or perhaps even feared, they turn out to be exceptional
Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture. His most recent book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.
Published: May 30, 2013
|Life A User's Manual
by Georges Perec
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
a website devoted to radical,
unconventional and experimental
fiction with a particular focus on the
rise of modernism and its aftermath.