Life Big Read: A Better Mousetrap

An "s-shaped sofa," mentioned in Life A User's Manual

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As I read this week’s section, I felt that what was most coming though was the idea of quests that become traps. I first noticed this in that quote about Bartlebooth that I mentioned earlier this week and which I will reproduce here:

That’s what struck Valene the most, his gaze which did not manage to meet his own, as if Bartlebooth had sought to look behind his head, had wanted to pierce his head to reach beyond it in the neutral asylum of the stairwell with it’s trompe-loeil decorations mimicking old marbling and its staff skirting board made to resemble wood panelling. There was in that avoiding look something more violent than a void, something that was not merely pride or hatred, but almost panic, something like a mad hope, like an appeal for help, like a signal of distress. [142]

We also see this trope in the quest-stories that Perec tells, most notably in the utterly bizarre one about the nanny who accidentally kills the baby and then is traced and hunted down over a period of years by the father. What is so sensational about this story is that–while we expect the sensation of being hunted to feel confining and dispiriting to the hunted woman–the stress of living this quest for revenge is just as bad to the father:

I killed her two days later. In killing her I understood that death delivered her just as, the day after tomorrow, it will deliver me. [172]

It’s interesting to think of exactly what a quest is, something that we discussed in the big read for The Last Samurai. As we read that book I brought up the idea that the form of the quest narrative has changed since we first began writing quest narratives with Homer:

The concept of quest story has been usefully divided into classic and modern versions–the Odyssey is the best example of the classic quest, where the hero ventures out, defeats some enemy, end eventually makes it back home. The modern quest might be typified by Kafka’s The Castle, where the hero’s quest ultimately turns into the realization that an ending will be endlessly deferred.

Seven Samurai strikes me as combining both of these visions of the quest into a beautiful symmetrically unified whole: the farmers represent the classical quest, as they venture out, recruit the samurai to defeat their enemy, and than are shown happily planting crops the next spring, their enemy defeated and their quest brought to a conclusive end. By contrast, the samurai embody the modern quest: as they triumph over the bandits only to fight another day, and at film’s end one gets the sense that no matter how many triumphs they win, it will always be only to fight another day.

I would argue that The Last Samurai also fuses the classical and the modern quests . . .

At this point in our read, I would think that if the title “Life A User’s Manual” is to be taken as an unironic title we have to think it has something to do with these futile, ultimately life-constraining quests that have already proliferated so much in the book. We might consider what causes people to enter into these quests, what roles the quests serve in the lives of their owners, how and when they become traps, how they ultimately end, and whether and how they give a life meaning.

Now for some questions on this week’s reading.

A "revolving bookcase," mentioned in Life A User's Manua

Upon reading the racy beginning to Chapter Thirty (“Marquiseaux, 2”) did anyone go back and look at “Marquiseaux, 1” (Chapter Fifteen)? They make a funny comparison, particularly given how circumspect Perec is in 1 about what precisely is going on in the bathroom next door in 2. Remember, all of these descriptions are happening at the exact same moment in time.

What did you all think of the long list of after-party items in chapter twenty-nine [149-52]? I thought it was a glorious list and I read it twice. It also put me in mind of Life A User’s Manual’s encyclopedic aspirations, as well as Perec’s fixation on things.

I really liked “On the Stairs, 3” (Chapter Twenty-eight), particularly the description of how “one day, above all, the whole house will disappear, the street and the quartier will die.” [146] Perec’s discussion of “the slow adaptation of the body to space” [145] seemed quite apt to the book’s themes as we’ve discussed them so far. And I loved Perec’s theoretical ad copy for the immense development complex that would eventually take the apartment building’s place [147]. Next to it I wrote “the way we live, expressed in the language of the way we sell.” Certainly the mechanics of living and selling are two of Perec’s obsessions.

What did you all think of the coral-like remains of the table that had been eaten by worms and then filled in with lead so that after dissolving the original wood an “exact record of the worms’ life” was left [139]? Another apt image in my opinion. This one is so striking that it remained strong in my memory every since my first reading of this book.

Now that we’ve finally had the complete description of Bartlebooth’s quest [130-135], what do you all make of it? I particularly note these quotes: “Thus no trace would remain of an operation which would have been, throughout a period of fifty years, the sole motivation and unique activity of its author” [135]; “it would be something so simple and discreet, difficult of course but not impossibly so, controlled form start to finish and conversely controlling every detail of the life of the man engaged upon it.” [134]

I found interesting Valene’s use of the word “ambition” to describe Barthebooth’s quest. Is it really ambitious?

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I see no ambition. Rather, the opposite.
In Melville, Bartleby displays the ‘I’d rather not’ vibe.
In Perec, Bartlebooth’s vibe seems to be ‘I might as well’.
Bartleby? Bartlebooth? Was Georges down with Herman?

This weeks reading made me realize how wrong my initial interpretation of Perec was. Indeed, LUM seems very much an investigation of the interior landscape of the self, even though it is written in such distanced, objective language. To understand Perec’s interpretation of a quest, I think that it is important to return to his mention of Gestalt. We know that Gestalt is commonly described or captured in the phrase “the sum is greater than its parts”. But it is crucial to consider that Gestalt is also, roughly translated, a configuration: a circle. Here, I think, is a wonderfully succinct and dynamic definition of Gestalt, which hopefully indicates its significance as a means of interpreting human motivations and behavior.

“A Gestalt is a completed unit of human experience. It is a
unique aesthetic formulation of a whole; it will to some
degree involve contact, awarness, atttention and figure
formation out of the ground of my experience; it arises
out of emergent needs and is mobilized by agressive energy”.

I believe that each of the three quests that Perec describes are attempts to complete a Gestalt circle.


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The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

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