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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Life A User's Manual (1978) by George Perec

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Life A User's Manual was the last novel published by Georges Perec, he died of lung cancer aged, 45, in 1979.
Book Review
Life A User's Manual (1978)
 by Georges Perec

  Life A User's Manual was French author Georges Perec's last novel, and it is also considered his best.    Checking in at 500 pages, with an additional 100 pages of appendices, Perec manages to embrace both his life long obsession with writing under a system of constraints (a characteristic of the Oulipo movement, of which Perec was a life-long affiliate.)  Unlike some of his other novels, the scheme does not eclipse the narrative, making Life A User's Manual enjoyable to read.

  The idea behind Life A User's Manual is to completely describe the lives (and things) of an entire apartment building of Parisians.  It is the novelistic equivalent of removing the front of a children's dollhouse and making up a story for each of the inhabitants and then describing all of the things inside the dollhouse.  According to Wikipedia, this approach was something of a life long obsession with Perec.   All of the rooms of each of the apartments is described in turn at a single point in time, moments after the death of the owner of the building, Bartlebooth.

  Bartlebooth is a wealthy Englishman who has spent his entire life in a single project.  First, he spends 10 years learning to paint watercolors.  Then he travels the world, painting one watercolor almost every week and then sending them back to Paris, where they are turned into 750 piece jigsaw puzzles by Gaspard Winckler (another resident of the described apartment building.)  Bartlebooth returns from his travels and then spends the rest of his life reassembling the puzzles, after which he returns the finished puzzle to the place where it was painted and has it chemically washed, the idea being that his entire life's work will be obliterated.

   Interspersed between episodes of this main narrative, necessarily (because of the restrictions of the approach) told as flashbacks, are dozens of interlinking tales about the lives of the people who have lived in the apartment building at various times.   These tales are voluminous and as entertaining as the central narrative concerning Bartlebooth.  Perec helpfully provides an index of these tales in the back of the book, with the numbers referring to chapter.

  It is tempting to describe Life A User's Manual as an early post-modernist masterpiece, but Perec is more like a modernist taking realist principles of description to an extreme and then cloaking it in his system of restraints.  Perec's fondest for lists of physical things is nowhere abated in Life A User's Manual.   What is different is the introduction of compelling narrative- both the central story about Bartlebooth and his puzzle paintings and dozens of the surrounding tales, which show an understanding of the appeal of genre fiction and genuine humor- rare in a European novel published between the end of World War II and today.


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