The rest in pieces

Life a User's Manual

All human life is a collection of definite locations, and the lists of possibles that surround each definite. There is the country, town, street and house in which you were born, with rows and rows of roads either side, specks of other cities dotted around it, and other nations clinging to the borders that circumscribe your own. There are the contents of your room, your scrapbooks, your letters and your own head, each a localized summary of you, staggering its cluttered way through life. Thus the whole of humanity might be found in the history, contents, layout and occupants of, for example, an apartment block at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier. The overlapping lists and structures might somehow reveal some greater story than the sum at each overlap, a thread that binds the whole together.

Such is the premise of this, Perec's magnum opus, where the interlocking lives and corridors of a nine-story apartment block provide a matrix from which to generate the whole world. There's no real plot arc---or it might be better to say that there are many, as each of the largest apartments in the block warrant multiple entries spread over the book---but stories are told and exchanged, and interlock, and reference each other and complement each other as the book develops. The contents of the cellars and the state of each item of junk's disrepair are told as lovingly and carefully as the coupling "currently" taking place between two tenants, or the murder of another's daughter and son-in-law.

It's difficult not to be astonished by the work Perec has put into this book. It has an index and chronology, the former including Triptolemy (Greek grammarian, seventh century), Franco Bahamonde (Spanish dictator, 1892--1976) and the National Union of Foresters and Woodcutters (Australia). All the stories are seamless and microscopically detailed in themselves, and the strands of the central plot---bored millionaire Bartlebooth decides to make a work of conceptual art out of his life by painting 500 watercolours, have a carpenter make them into jigsaws, reassemble the jigsaws and have them turned by a tame chemist back into blank, memoryless sheets of vellum: but his jigsaw-maker confounds him, and he begins to lose his sight, and time is running out---assemble so slowly and heartbreakingly that it's like watching your own father grow old before you. Life, Perec is telling us, is like a jigsaw, a complex puzzle, where each piece must sit in its rightful place like apartments in an apartment block, that only the fortunate can assemble and understand in the few short years we're given.

But Life, like life, is incredibly difficult to follow or indeed appreciate on the grand scale, and doesn't really work as a whole novel. This is a collection of short stories, themed and interrelated, and should ideally be read as such. It was all written twenty years too early for the technological platforms that would have done it genuine justice as the perfect, flawless hypertextual work of art that so clearly strains here against the boundaries of the pages of a simple, linear book. But even though we clearly need Perec now, it would be churlish not to be glad of what he wrote back then.