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Life Big Read: The Big Middle


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So I think this week in the Life Big Read is the part in which we all take a deep breath and plod through this book’s long middle. The excitement of beginning, along with the momentum of discovering Bartlebooth’s big plan, has peetered out, yet we are not quite into the homestretch yet. Rather we are in the middle, a bit of a muddy trench filled with story after story, description after description, list after list.

This, for me, is the slowest part of Life A User’s Manual, and yet, there is much here to thrill. I’ll first direct everyone’s attention to what is certainly one of the most grand and bizarre lists in literature, that which takes up the entirety of Chapter 74, “Life Machinery, 2.”

It begins again with that elusive “he,” whom at this point I think we agree is Valene, and proceeds:

Sometimes he imagined the building as an iceberg whose visible tip included the main floors and eaves and whose submerged mass began below the first level of cellars: stairs with resounding steps going down in spirals; long tiled corridors . . .

And so begins a list that will take up the following four pages [405 - 408], broken out into multiple subsections and including “canals lined with strings of barges,” “mine galleries with blind ageing horses drawing carts filled with ore,” “a whole subterranean city organised vertically into neighborhoods,” and “eyeless beings who drag animal carcasses behind them,” all, I remind you, connected to and existing below the apartment.

Two questions: first of all, what on earth is going on here?

Secondly, this seems like the appropriate time to stop and consider Perec’s use of lists, which has been a major feature of the book. I’m curious to know how you all feel about lists in general, and Perec’s in particular.

Lists, to me, are a funny thing in literature. I think it is very easy to use them improperly and have them degenerate into a kind of empty showiness. But on the other hand some of my favorite authors have used them with great effect.

I think that the form of Life A User’s Manual–essentially a book of description that takes place in just one infinitesimal moment in time–makes it ideal for listing. Also, the book’s much-discussed infatuation with things lends it to lists too.

But to get back to the particular list we find in “Life Machinery, 2,” it feels different. It feels more “fake,” which is a strange thing to say since this book we’re reading is a work of fiction, and so we would expect for everything in it to feel more or less equally fake. But that’s not the case here. For instance, a lot of things Perec references in this book are in fact “real” in the sense that Operation Paperclip, referenced in this week’s reading, actually took place. By contrast, the “eyeless beings who drag animal carcasses behind them” don’t sound real at all, or at least not connected to any kind of reality that Life takes place in.

I’m quite curious to hear others’ reactions to this list–my own interpretation is that it’s a kind of time traveling. As we move deeper and deeper out, these subterranean depths sort of pyramid out, growing ever more abstract and capturing more of the shadowy, barely human underside of capitalism. So for instance, close to the top we have the raw inputs–great halls, factory-like entities, “mountains of sand, gravel, coke.” And then further down the highways and canals that transport it all. And then on to the waste-products and their parasites, the “ragpickers and flea merchants,” the “overturned dustbins turning out cheese rinds.” And then finally the “tiled morgues peopled with nostalgic hoods and the open-eyed bodies of the doomed.” And then finally the bottom “world of caverns” with “Cyclopses.”

The story that heads this week’s section gives us a chance to talk about two themes that I haven’t discussed so much here: mass production and virtual realities. This first story involves the mass production of virtual realities.

For those not reading along, it is about a man and woman who specialize in introducing clients to the Devil in order that they may enact a Faustian bargain. They do this some several hundred times (racking up enormous fees in the process), essentially mass producing a simulacrum of a key component of European mythology, culture, and literature.

I wonder, what exactly is the relationship between this performance for an audience of one and something like theater, or even something more subversive like a “candid camera” type theater, where the acting is done with an intent to deceive as to its reality?

And the, finally, there’s the elaboration of the relationship between Winkler and Bartlebooth via puzzle [376 - 384]. As far as I can tell, this is the most precise description that we have of the minutia of how Bartlebooth spends his days. Is it any more or less meaningful a way than those who, for instance, spend their days contriving meetings with the Devil or attempting to break new speed records in bike racing, to just take two examples from this week’s section?

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2 comments to Life Big Read: The Big Middle

  • Okay, lists. I’m a James Joyce fan. Not a scholar, but an ardent fan. I’ve read ULYSSES at least 7 times (once annotated, once aloud). Quite the list builder was Jim. His lists are literary music. Some are straight comedy. He played with language like a toddler in a sandbox wielding pail and shovel. Here’s part of his list of Irish heroes and heroines of antiquity: …the Village Blacksmith, Captain Moonlight, Captain Boycott, Dante Alighieri, Christopher Columbus, S. Fursa, S. Brendan, Marshal MacMahon, Charlemagne, Theobald Wolfe Tone, the Mother of the Maccabees, the Last of the Mohicans, the Rose of Castille, the Man for Galway, The Man that Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, etc. It goes on for quite a while and includes Lady Godiva and Patrick W. Shakespeare. Two pages earlier, another list includes: fishful streams where sport the gunnard, the plaice, the roach, the halibut, the gibbed haddock, the grilse, the dab, the brill, the flounder. In Chapter 15 of LIFE, Georges lists all the places visited by Bartlebooth on his painting quest. In that list is the following:stalls of gurnard, brill, lasher, bream, whiting, mackerel, skate, tuna fish, cuttlefish, and lampreys.
    One other Joyce reference popped out at me in LIFE. H.E.L.Y’S marching advertisement wanders by from time to time in ULYSSES, and in LIFE, the store is mentioned in one of Georges’ stories (forget which).

  • Stephen

    It’s interesting that you find the lists in Lift Machinery, 2 more “fake”, and I think that it’s because these lists were imagined, presumably by Valene. It is not an inventory type of objective description like so many of the other lists. These imagined lists are the result of the character’s reflexivity, and so they are quite different from those lists produced as the narrator observes and objectively describes and inventories. This section kind of gave me the impression that at this point Perec takes the opportunity to entice us, or confirm that there is more going on in LUM than might be first apparent. I was left wondering if Perec introduces the concept of ‘power’ at this point.
    Perec also gives me the impression that lists in literature have two nice effects. These lists seem to defy the rigid boundry between fiction and nonfiction. And they remind one of the fundamental, a priori aspect of language, the role language plays in determining thought and constructing our world in an essential way.

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