So now that we’ve had a chance to experience a bit of Life A User’s Manual, let’s talk about one of the most distinctive things about Perec’s prose in this book: the extraordinary tangibility of it.
I don’t know about all of you, but just about every last thing described in this book feels remarkably palpable, touchable, and real to me. I think this is important. Here’s why.
To explain what I mean, let’s go back to one of Perec’s very first books, titled simply Things. This is a great, small book. It’s about two young French professionals in the ’60s who have just begun making their way in life. The book is titled Things because that’s just what the two protagonists are obsessed with–things, namely chic consumer goods. They’re torn between fully embracing consumer culture and all it represents and keeping a cool distance (and all that represents). Tellingly, Perec’s protagonists are in their late 20s, the age when one’s youthful aspirations for a romantic, bohemian life are beginning to seriously clash with one’s aspirations for a place of some status in society. The book is about how they navigate this stage of life, between a life of no-thing and a life of things.
Clearly, Perec was aware of the powerful force that could be exerted by consumer objects in a capitalistic society, as the tension in Things revolves around exactly the force that these objects emit on his youthful protagonists. It was very much a concern of the times (think, for instance, of Barthes’ Mythologies), and although Perec perhaps has a reputation for abstract, postmodern games, it’s not too much of a surprise to see that the power of things fascinated him. After all, that very postmodernism that he so well embodied goes hand in hand with a thoroughly commodified society in which objects have great symbolic value.
So what does all this have to do with Life? Well, just read the prose. You will hardly find a single object in this entire book that is not described in exquisite, incredibly precise, yet breathtakingly brief detail. Take, for instance, all the precision of detail in this list from page 43:
Lined up on top of this bookcase are various casts, an old Marianne from some town hall, large vases, three fine alabaster pyramids, whilst the five layers of shelving bow under the weight of a heap of knickknacks, curios, and gadgets: kitsch objects from a 1930s Inventors’ Exhibition: a potato-peeler, a device for stirring mayonnaise with a little cylinder that releases the oil drop by drop, a tool for fine-slicing hard-boiled eggs and another for making butter whorls, a terrifying complicated monkey wrench no doubt intended to be merely the ultimate in corkscrews; . . .
Notice how substantial Perec makes the knickknacks by telling us that the shelf bows under their weight (a memorable image; normally the only thing that can make a shelf bend is books). Notice too that he labels these things as kitsch–despite that they were the subject of a special “inventor’s exhibition.” This contrast points us toward the themes of copies, fakes, and cultural appropriation that are already rife in this book. Also note that, even though this is just a list of items, yet it’s so well defined, so varied, so intriguing. I feel as though I could read this list forever.
And that’s a good thing, because a substantial amount of space in Life A User’s Manual is taken up by descriptions of things and, frequently, the story behind them.
It’s very much worthwhile to consider why Perec describes these things in such detail and why he allows them to dominate his book. Partly, this domination is required by the conceit of the book–that it describes a single moment in Paris on June 23, 1975. Really, all a book that exists in but one moment in time can do is describe–and what better to describe than things?
Also notice how the book becomes encyclopedic with these descriptions, that is, how the things and their backstories build up a mosaic image of a postmodern, globalized culture. This is, of course, very much represented (perhaps even idealized) in Bartlebooth’s mad scheme to paint 500 ports in ever corner of the globe over the course of 20 years (and notice, again, how Perec details so many components of transnational capitalistic society in explaining how this scheme works).
So as we read, take some time to consider why things so often take center stage in this book. Think about how they function in the book, how Perec approaches them, and what the many, interconnected stories behind them might mean.