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Reading “Life A User’s Manual”

By Geoff Wisner

In The Pattern in the Carpet, her recent memoir cum history of the jigsaw puzzle, Margaret Drabble pays tribute to Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec, an enormous experimental novel also concerned with jigsaw puzzles.

Long experimental French novels don’t usually attract me, and Drabble admits that the same is true of her, so the book seemed worth exploring.

Life A User's Manual (I follow Godine, the publisher of the translation, in omitting a comma or colon) takes place in an apartment in the 17th arrondissement, at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier. A snapshot in time, the book centers on the moment of 8:00 p.m. on June 23, 1975, though the stories of its building’s inhabitants radiate in time and geography.

The book's main character (probably) is Percival Bartlebooth, who conceives a project deliberately designed to “destroy itself as it proceeded.” The project is succinctly described on p. 118 of the 1987 edition:

For ten years, from 1925 to 1935, Bartlebooth would acquire the art of painting watercolours.

For twenty years, from 1935 to 1955, he would travel the world, painting, at a rate of one watercolour each fortnight, five hundred seascapes of identical format (royal, 65cm x 50 cm) depicting seaports. When each view was done, he would dispatch it to a specialist craftsman (Gaspard Winckler), who would glue it to a thin wooden backing board and cut it into a jigsaw puzzle of seven hundred and fifty pieces.

For twenty years, from 1955 to 1975, Bartlebooth, on his return to France, would reassemble the jigsaw puzzles in order, at a rate, once again, of one puzzle a fortnight. As each puzzle was finished, the seascape would be “retexturised” so that it could be removed from its backing, returned to the place where it had been painted — twenty years before — and dipped in a detergent solution whence would emerge a clean and unmarked sheet of Whatman paper.

I must admit that I made it only halfway through Life A User's Manual.

I didn’t stop for the reasons I might have expected. Unlike some experimental novels, this one has real characters, real stories, and a wealth (even an excess) of concrete detail about the real world. Sentence by sentence it is exceptionally well written, displaying a style and erudition that must have been a challenge to David Bellos, the translator, especially at a time before the Internet. (Godine recently published a revised translation.)

From the first half of this book I learned about the zorille (a kind of African skunk), alabandite (manganese sulfide, forming cubic crystals), and sigillated earthenware (decorated with stamps). It seems possible that Perec invented Dasogale fontoynanti, a species of Madagascar tendrac of which only specimen was ever found (the only references I can find are to this book itself), but I can't be sure.

So what was the problem? I think for me the problem was that the novel, though full of incident, is extremely static. Each character is introduced by way of a highly detailed description of his or her apartment, as if written by some crazed interior decorator. These are impressive but finally stultifying. Everything us subordinated to the building and its structure, which is also the structure of the book.

Life A User's Manual has certain parallels with Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, which I read recently. Both are about a house, of course, and both apply seemingly endless energy and ingenuity in adding layers of meaning to that house. But House of Leaves supplies a suspenseful plot that carries you through the labyrinth of its presentation. Life A User's Manual offers a set of fanatically described rooms and a variety of nested or truncated stories, and for me at least that makes it much less satisfying.

Published Jan 21, 2010   Copyright 2010 Geoff Wisner

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