A 10-story building reveals a 99-story narrative tapestry
Perec was one of the founders of the Oulipo movement in literature. To experiment with form and structure, the writers of this French-based literary school applied mathematical and linguistic limitations on their writing. For example, Perec once wrote an entire 300 page novel without using the letter “e” (A Void, published in 1969). Though seemingly a hindrance, such self-imposed restrictions were intended to inspire creativity, much like how some surrealist artists used blindfolded drawings as the basis for their paintings. The mathematical constraints used by Perec in the writing of Life: A User’s Manual are too complicated to explain here (Google it if you want to be confused). The remarkable thing about his writing, however, is that the restrictive rules are unnoticeable in the text, which simply reads like a great work of literature.
Rather than a novel, Life: A User’s Manual almost resembles a scenario written for a role-playing game. A map of the imaginary building is provided. When one enters a room, all the various furnishings are described, right down to every last object on the tables, shelves, and walls. Rather than the treasure chests and magical trappings of Dungeons & Dragons, however, the rooms of Perec’s apartment building are furnished with books, postcards, objets d’art, decorative prints, occupational paraphernalia, and miscellaneous ephemera, all intricately described to the last detail. Like Umberto Eco, Perec has a penchant for extensive lists, whether it be the contents of a refrigerator, the items in a shop window, or the artifacts in an archives. Crafted in such exquisite verbal detail, the ten-story apartment building at 11 rue Simon-Crubellier becomes the ultimate life-sized dollhouse.
The building’s inhabitants are revealed in a similar level of elaborate detail. The people one meets in this building are defined by their pasts. Though the main narrative of the novel takes place in the present of 1975, all the action occurs in flashbacks, as if the building were now frozen in time. One meets not only the present occupants of the building’s many rooms but also its past denizens as well, as if the story of each room were more important than the lives that took place there. But oh, the lives! Perec comes up with incredibly inventive biographies for the dozens of characters in the book, each more fascinating than the next. The 99 brief and varied chapters amount to a sort of modern Canterbury Tales. The stories are even indexed in the back of the book, with such entries as “The Tale of the Acrobat who did not want to get off his trapeze ever again” or “The Tale of the Neurasthenic Lawyer who settled in Indonesia.”
Life: A User’s Manual is the best work of fiction I’ve read in a long time, and I would count it among my ten favorite novels of the second half of the 20th century. Normally I’m not interested in the literary gimmicks and gameplay of modern and postmodern literature, but if this is an indication of the results of the Oulipo group’s experimentation, I look forward to reading more works by Perec and his colleagues.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to Amazon.com and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.