Life Big Read: Surfaces


Here are a few thoughts about the beginning of this week’s section, with some more fully fleshed thoughts to come later in the week, once we’ve all had a fair chance to get through to the end.

We’ve already been talking a great deal about things and descriptions, so now it’s time to talk about surfaces. I’m thinking specifically in terms of Sherwood’s Tale, in which our overly credulous Sherwood purchases what he believes to be the Holy Grail, but is in fact scammed by crooks [pp. 96 – 109].

It is one of those elaborate confidence scams where a person is shown one small piece of evidence after another to slowly build up trust in what is ultimately a big, unbelievable falsehood. As such, it is very much a story about surfaces, about essentially taking evidence at face value in a naive sort of way, which of course we all do as a simple part of life every day. If there is any one thing that has distinguished itself so far in Life A User’s Manual, it is that Perec is challenging us again and again to look beyond surface descriptions.

This particular version of that exhortation adds a special twist. In the lead-up to Sherwood’s Tale, Perec goes into the idea of collecting unica–objects like the Holy Grail for which only one example exists in the world. In his discussion of unica, Perec notes examples like “the octobass, a monstrous double-bass for two musicians,” or “animal species of which only one member is known to exist,” before finally giving us a small warning: “any object whatsoever can always be identified uniquely, and . . . in Japan there is a factory mass-producing Napoleon’s hat.” [95]

And this is true: right now I’m typing this entry on a unicum of my own–the Apple computer that Scott Esposito typed his George Perec Big Read entry into. Of course no one has any interest in this unicum, like the great majority of unica in the world, yet if I became famous enough there might be a market for a factory to mass produce copies of this computer to sell to a consumer market.

What this digression about unica forces us to think about are ideas of authenticity, rarity, and singularity. All objects are “authentic” in some way, and yet we don’t consider all objects authentic. Similarly, all objects can be rare and even singular by various criteria, but in practice we only use those terms to describe very few objects, or else they would become useless to us as descriptives.

My point here is that the concept of unica throws us back to the frames that dominate our society but are rarely seen, revealing them to us. It also takes us beneath the surface appearance of an item like “Napoleon’s hat” to help us understand just what that item is.

All this relates to Sherwood’s Tale because it is precisely these frames and definitions that are being exploited to con Sherwood. His willingness to participate in the con forces us to ask why he would participate, and the fact that an author has decided to write a book about the entire episode–presumably because people will find it interesting and buy her book–forces us to ask why people would find this story more interesting than many others.

And I think all of these questions get very much back to the heart of what Perec is doing here with all of these surface descriptions, strange tales, and immense-but-bizarre quests that give meaning to the lives of his characters. We have at least three of these quests in this week’s reading–the conclusion of the explanation of Bartlebooth’s, Appenzzell’s quest to live with the natives who flee from him, and Ericsson’s quest for vengeance. Each come to dominate all material and mental resources of the questor’s life, and each become, in their way, a prison. It is worth asking why and how as we read.

And as to that, I will leave you with a quote about Bartlebooth from this section:

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]

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[…] 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 […]

[…] off, I want to direct you to Scott’s first post about this section of the book. He does a great job of providing an entryway to this section, […]

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