LIFE A User’s Manual
Translated from the French by David Bellos
Original: Hachette, 1978
Revised English translation: Vintage, 2008
Perec’s masterpiece needs no further praise, but I thought I might write a “letter of welcome” for anyone approaching the book for the first time, for those who are curious and perhaps wary. It is, after all, 500 pages of fine print. The labels “experimental” and “postmodern” can be off-putting, as they have often been applied to work that is portentous or opaque or overly self-involved. How could a book with a title like “LIFE A User’s Manual” not be a little intimidating? Anyway, that is how I felt. This note is for others who might feel the same way.
Several people I respect very much loved this book, and it sounded like the sort of thing that I would like, so I sat down to it with high expectations, read thirty pages and said, “Huh?” It seemed so dry -- twenty percent story, twenty percent goofball theory, sixty percent catalog. Dry as dust, I thought. Just wasn’t making it into my head.
Assuming this to be simply my problem, I started again from page one, and the second time was a little better, though I wasn’t really hooked until Chapter Thirteen and the story of the acrobat who refused to come down. From then on I read in a slow and patient rapture, like a man unexpectedly caught in an ecstatic trance while cruising the subterranean stacks of a library.
In other words, be a little patient with Perec and with yourself. This is a book unlike any other and it may take a little while to get the hang of reading it. If all else fails: proceed directly to Chapter Thirteen!
I found that it helped a great deal to take notes. I got myself a little notebook and filled it with the names of characters, vocabulary I didn’t know, bizarre theories as well as sentences I loved and copied out. This helped me keep track of who was who and what was going on. Just as important, it allowed me to keep alert amid the thundering crash of people, ideas, events and objects the book presents. Maybe the vocabulary list didn’t really matter (though don’t you want to remember what a pyx is and what is a cubic pouf?); maybe I just needed the illusion of control.
(I admit that taking detailed notes is my idea of a good time. I prefer books that are dense or even slightly difficult -- they afford me fewer opportunities to contemplate the condition of my own life. If a book is too easy I sit before it daydreaming, wondering how I will ever be able to afford orthodontics.)
Since the word “experimental” is sometimes a synonym for work that is not competent at story-telling or is overly pleased with its own mechanics, I think the most important thing to say about this book is that it is crammed full of fabulously good yarns. This book has more murders and love affairs and weird obsessions than a ten foot stack of pulp fiction.
Like the Bible, it is an anthology that’s also full of rules, and genealogies and household stuff. These are the kind of stories your drunk uncle might tell at the fireside with a drink in his hand -- assuming that your uncle is prone to black humor and melodrama and more than slightly obsessed with fine details.
Who are the allies and cousins of this book? I thought of Melville and his adventure tales packed with encyclopedic information. I thought of Borges, of all his rules and mysteries welded so smoothly to old-fashioned story-telling. Above all, I thought of Roberto Bolano, because only in Bolano have I found this capacity for boundless non-stop invention.
For most writers, I reckon, it is a big deal when a story or a character arrives, but, for Perec as for Bolano, there is a profusion of people, ideas, and events that seems effortless and unending. The book pours out. In one paragraph Perec or Bolano can afford to dispense with an idea or situation that might keep another writer busy for a decade. Because there always seems to be more where that came from. This book bestows its stories as liberally as a billionaire might give away dimes. (If I were in charge of the universe, neither Bolano nor Perec would have died young. They would have both lived to be 97 at least and been great friends.)
If you possess a powerful intellect, or are staggeringly well read, or possess an encyclopedic mind, you will find recondite references everywhere, as well as evidence of the structures and restraints Perec created for himself in order to create the book. Unfortunately my intelligence is no better than standard-issue and so all of this went totally over my head. And I still had an incredibly good time reading the book.
As for the endless catalogs of objects, so meticulously chosen and described, please keep in mind that, if you are NOT a dedicated literature nerd, or if you work at a time-intensive job highly valued by society, SKIMMING, while looked down upon, is legal all over the world. If you do not need to know every bottle of wine in the Altamount’s basement, or every etching on the walls of Madame Marcia’s, then you are free to hurry on to the bizarre over-the-top meticulous yarns with which this book teams like a nest full of ants, ants doomed in ways that are beguiling, and funny, and mathematically precise.