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So now that we’ve finished up with Part I of Life A User’s Manual, I’m curious to know how people are getting along. You’ll no doubt have noticed that the form the book takes is very particular–there’s a lot of description (as I discussed in this post), and not a lot happens; all we really get are these brief stories and anecdotes about people and objects encountered in the apartment. Do people like this? Why do you think Perec has structured the book in this way?
Another point of discussion–we’ve already had some various opinions on the value of knowing about the various constraints Perec embedded in this book. For my own part, I think knowing about at least a couple of the major ones is important. I view something like The Knight’s Tour as being as much a part of the book as Bartlebooth because this funny little constraint is very much conditioning how Perec tells this story. He can’t just jump from character to character as per his whim–he has to navigate over there via his knight’s leaps. By turning the form of his novel into a chessboard, he’s added an element of space to his composition in a way that few books ever will. This conditions they way the story can be told, which itself conditions which stories can be told.
Similarly, I think Perec’s choice to jigsaw unattributed quotes into Life cuts right to the core of one of the things that this book is about–the way that the pieces of life, of culture, of human relationships, of capitalistic society, they way the little bits and pieces that make up each of these things are slotted in to one another.
Okay, enough jibber jabber. Some questions. First of all, what the hell is Bartlebooth up to? What’s up with this lifelong, more or less pointless quest that he has decided to dedicate his vast resources and rare freedom toward? Why did Perec make this exceedingly odd quest the centerpiece of this book? And is this quest really a quest? What exactly is a quest?
Another question: What did you think of the extract from the catalog from Madame Moreau’s do-it-yourself home improvement business [pp.79 – 83]? It’s a pretty long, jargon-filled list. Did you like it? Did it bore you? Why stick it in the book at all? Why didn’t Perec simply allude to it, of include a shorter list just to give a flavor of the catalog?
What do you think of this character talked about in Chapter 17 only named as “he.” This man has “lived in the building longer than anyone else”  and has very extensive memories of all sorts of details from the life of the apartment building:
He tried to resuscitate those imperceptible details which over the course of fifty-five years had woven the life of this house and which the years had unpicked one by one: the impeccably polished linoleum floors on which you were only allowed to walk in felt undershoes, the oiled canvas tablecloths with red and green stripes on which mother and daughter shelled peas; the dishstands that clipped together, the white porcelain counterpoise light that you could flick back up with one finger at the end of dinner . . .
Who is this man? (Perec’s authorial doppelganger, perhaps?) What is he doing on the stairs? Will we ever hear from him or see him again?
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