I’ve been greatly enjoying reading everyone’s responses to Life A User’s Manual, and if you haven’t done so yet I urge you to register your opinion, regardless of it you read it during the Big Read or at some other point in the past.
I’d like to talk about one point that’s come up a number of times in a number of ways–people are largely dividing the book into “stories” and “descriptions,” which is a fair enough way to roughly group the material in Life.
I think that virtually everyone likes the stories, and with good reason, as they’re quite fanciful, entertaining, generally well-plotted, intriguing, meaningful, etc. Where we see much more differentiation is in the descriptions, which some people like, some don’t like, and some seem to have grown to like after deciding to just go with them.
Long lists and purely descriptive prose are definitely a subjective thing, in Life as well as in all of literature. For the record, I like Perec’s descriptions very much, not just in this book but in his others as well, and I could probably read an entire book that was just Perec describing objects, but I recognize that this will not be the case for everyone. (And likewise, I’m left indifferent by descriptions in many other books.)
But whether or not you like the descriptions as much as I do, there’s a very strong argument for them being there, and for you going with them and reading them. First of all, they should be there because Perec was obsessed by them, and Life is nothing if not Perec indulging his obsessions. This is what good authors do: they put their obsessions into the form of books, which we then read. Life was the capstone achievement of a lifetime of Perec following the things that intrigued him, and I doubt he knew why he found these things intriguing, nor why he wrote about them in the manner he did. The only way to even hasten a guess is to read Life and offer your response to it. That’s as it should be. Because if any author can tell you why he or she is obsessed by something, and why he or she writes about it in the way they do, then you’re wasting your time reading their books. All you need to do is listen to their explanation, and you’ll have saved yourself countless hours.
My second reason that you should take the descriptions like anything else has to do with reading as an experience. If you look at the stories in Life, they evoke in us a very common experience–that of following a good story, which we encounter everywhere in life: talking to friends, watching movies, listening to the radio, forming our own life narrative, etc, etc. It’s only normal that all of humanity can love a good story because we’re all so used to the pleasures of them.
The descriptions, by contrast, are something most of us are probably unfamiliar with. And that’s good. That’s why it’s worthwhile to read them, to see Perec defamiliarize our world and our idea of “reading literature,” and to discover what kind of pleasures can be evoked by Perec’s particular manner of writing. Perhaps, at length, you will conclude that you don’t like the pleasures peculiar to Perec’s descriptions, and perhaps you will conclude that you feel you have nothing to gain by seeing Perec approach objects in our world through these unfamiliar byways. That’s fine. As I said last week, not everyone will be equally moved by all great books, and that’s as it should be.
But if you are going to make a credible attempt at reading Life, you must at least give the particular experience of Perec’s method a chance to work over you–that is, you must read the descriptions, even though you may initially get nothing from them, and see if the experience of them begins to become meaningful for you. This is the great fun and the great adventure of reading truly innovative literature: you get to see something that you never before saw, which can frequently be a difficult and frustrating experience in the beginning. But I urge you to stick with it. The rewards are immense, and unattainable anywhere else.