Life Big Read: The End

stopwatch

Per the schedule, we should all be done with Life A User’s Manual this week. How many of you made it to the end, how many of you didn’t, and why did you or didn’t you?

I’m curious to know specifically why this book did or did not work for you, because it seems to divide reader-friends of mine like few others. Some take right to it, others seem to never find a way in. I can’t say exactly why. For my own part, though I never feel any narrative momentum when I read Life, that doesn’t bother me in the least. I enjoy its Decameron-like structure, the parade of stories and stories-within-stories, and stories-within-stories-within-stories. I’ve always liked books like that (The Golden Age would be a good example from last year), books that are virtuosic in their ability to contain a million viewpoints and a million details and a million characters all within one schema. If a book can do that and do it well continuously, I really don’t care about the absence of plot. But then again, I like to read the encyclopedia and the dictionary, so I’m clearly sympathetic to this kind of a book.

I also have much sympathy with the themes that Perec picks up. I think he foresees a hell of a lot in Life and gives the final word to a number of other things. Whatever you thought of it, I don’t think it’s arguable that it’s the capstone to a certain kind of writing that flourished in the middle of last century and pretty much ended with Life. That’s not to say that the book hasn’t given birth to new writers, Oulipian and otherwise, just that none of those inspired by it ever did it the way Perec did.

One of our readers, Bob Garlitz, tendered his resignation on his blog last week.

I did that once with the great novel by Cortázar, Hopscotch. I did enjoy that book immensely. Life is no Hopscotch. Life may be, but the novel is not. At least the four hundred pages I read did not endear me to the experience in the ways that reading Hopscotch did. Not even close. I read Perec’s Avoid, famous for not using one “e” either in French or in either of the two English translations. That should have been enough. I knew better when Conversational Reading announced the project. So, cut your losses, embrace your failure, hand the book on at the transfer station or try to sell it over the next ten years. No doubt it is a masterwork. I am just not much of an Oulipian sympathizer or fellow traveler. Back to Bernhard or on to someone else. Better do some research now on Jardin des Plantes before biting into that macaronesque morsel. I will need, it seems, a short course on the relationship, if any, between Oulipo and the Nouveau Roman. Or perhaps enough with all these French writers. Back to England, back to the Raj, pick up Jane Gardam’s Old Filth instead. Or how about Pessoa, Saramago, Vargas Llosa. Even better, a new work by Aira. There is guaranteed reading pleasure.

I like what Garlitz says here insofar as he doesn’t talk in terms of him failing the book or the book failing him–simply he says that though it may be a masterpiece, it wasn’t for him. Which is of course perfectly fine. You wouldn’t walk into a museum and expect to like every painting you saw, even if the museum you walked into was the Louvre, so why would you expect to have an affinity for every masterpiece of world literature?

But where I disagree is in Garlitz’s assertion that he is “not much of an Oulipian sympathizer.” To judge an entire school of writing on not liking Perec is over-hasty, as Oulipo has proven that there are many, many books that can be made out of its method. (You can see my favorites in this list right here.) For instance, Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is an incredibly plotty, very fun and funny book that has very little in common at all with Life. If you didn’t like Life want another crack at Oulipo, I highly recommend it. Or for something complete different, you could try My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973 by Harry Mathews. Or any number of books on my list.


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I’ve been a ten year old all my life. I’m 67 now, and I write children’s fantasies. Like the ten year old book lover I was, I read to be entertained. As well as those that roll out a nifty plot and characters, I love the guys and gals that experiment and play with words and structure. Even the Reverend Charlie Dodgson was proto-Oulipian with his chess game ‘Through the Looking Glass’. As for LIFE, I’ve read along here all the way through, and I’m half way through reading it again, room by room, upper left to lower right, floor by floor. The clumping together of rooms does make an easier read of many of the residents’ lives. I think Georges might have been amused by my reading it in this manner.

I at first wasn’t in love with the book. I was worried that the whole thing would be an inventory of all the rooms in the apartment building, which, while well written and fun at first, was starting to get a little tiring after many pages of it. But once I got into the rhythm of the novel, I started to love it. The actual stories in the book were the reward for wading through descriptions of things, which, after a while, became like poetry. I started to anticipate the stories and knowing that there was a light at the end of the description made reading said description pleasurable. And those stories were so captivating, not to mention weird, sad, beautiful, and lonely.

I wonder what the book would be like if it were a collection of stories without the description between. Would the stories lose their power? What would be missing from the book? It would probably be just as entertaining without this description of things, but I do think it would lose it accumulative power without it. In any case, I obviously loved the novel. Not as much as the Marias trilogy, but definitely more than the last Samurai. Looking forward to what you pick next.

I finished this about a month ago because I knew I would be traveling. I had had serious doubts about being able to finish reading this when I was about a quarter of the way through. There were too many pieces to puzzle about. You can get so caught up in the minutiae of life you forget to look at the whole picture. I finally decided to go with the flow of the book and found myself caught up in the different stories and descriptions and unable to stop reading. Can I see myself reading this again, though? No, probably not.

I definitely enjoyed reading Life a User’s Manual, and I have to say that it left a substantial impression. I think the elaborate formal constraints work fabulously well, allowing Perec, or compelling him, to create a significantly different type of novel. I found the clarity and precission of his writing refreshing, and quite appropriate given the narrative gaze, like a fly on the wall, with so many eyes it sees everything at once. Reading LUM I kept coming back to the ideas of interiority and especially exteriority in literature. It is amazing that Perec brings so many interesting and eccentric characters to life. I think it is probably the greatest number of characters in any novel that I’ve read. And I really admire the way their individual stories relate or connect, but ultimately remain singular and distinct, sad parts of a greater sum they will never know.

I loved the novel and will return to it many times, I think. There are so many different ways to read it: following the Knight’s path, room by room, or tracking individuals., I loved the way the last pages put everything into context. It makes you realise how rich and unpredictable all lives are, and how all of us are linked to an infinite number of stories. I kept thinking I would translate the title as “Life: read the instructions”.

I followed the discussion of The Last Samurai, which I’d read while ago and which made quite an impression on me, but I didn’t participate. I’m very grateful to have been persuaded to read Life, so thanks for the choice, Scott.

These last four comments have so many insights but on the whole I found the discussions a little unsatisfying. It was’t that people didn’t say brilliant and unusual things but it was as if they were saying them into a void. There did not seem to be an ongoing exchange of ideas and responses. I wondered if the format could be improved. Often the book group seemed lost among the other posts. Maybe a separate forum dedicated to book discussions would help readers keep track of comments and respond immediately.

Gilly:

That’s a fair point about losing the discussion. For various reasons I’m going to keep all future Big Reads on this site, but I’ll probably tinker with some kind of way of aggregating them into an area to make it all a little easier to follow.

[…] upped the space for space for Zadie Smith's book column to the point that in May she… »Life Big Read: The EndPer the schedule, we should all be done with Life A User's Manual this week. How many of you made it […]

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