Life: A User’s Manual

lifeThe Short Version: A panoramic look at the residents of a single apartment building in Paris, at a very specific moment.  Of course, their lives and backstories and the stories of the building and the stories of people/things only barely tangentially related are also told, building up to a singular event at just before 8pm on June 23, 1975.

The Review: Before I begin, I must address a few interesting coincidences about the circumstances behind my finally reading/finishing this novel.  Firstly, the last book I read (Last Man in Tower – read it) was also about a block of flats.  It was a different story, of course – but we still got to know the residents of each apartment and how they interacted with each other and their lives were all woven together as a supporting tapestry around the main story.  This book does not have a main story, I’d argue (the closest it gets is Bartlebooth’s or perhaps Valene’s concept), but the general structure is similar: we get to know the residents of each apartment.

Secondly, I just saw an Under The Radar 2012 show by a collective called Gob Squad entitled “Super Night Shot” (also: see it).  Four members of the group rush onto the street an hour before the show and shoot a film which is then mixed live in front of the audience.  For various reasons, I happened to be inside the theater already for the final moment of the film (for me, it was the first moment of the show, I suppose – talk about meta…), where Bastian said something like (I wish I remembered the exact quote!): “without the banal, nothing would be incredible.”  So it’s interesting that I’ve spent my morning looking at so much banality that was, up to this point, annoying the hell out of me.

Full disclosure: had this book not been for BookClub, I may well’ve stopped reading it.  It bothered me to almost the same extent as Tristram Shandy – I simply did not care to keep reading it.  I felt, with each page, that I was mostly wasting my time.  I could’ve been reading something that was, put simply, more interesting.  I’m not one who necessarily needs a gripping plot – quite often, well-written stories without much plot are just as engaging as ones loaded with twists and turns (see: Richard Nelson’s Apple Family plays).  The problem is, there was no plot here.  In fact, I’ve been debating with myself about whether this can properly be considered a novel.  It is certainly fiction but I’m almost more willing to call it a fictional biography.  A fictional journalistic exercise.  It is not, to my mind, a novel – because there is no driving action.  This gets me into hot water though because some of the more experimental novels I’ve read in my time are just that: novels.  This, despite not having an obvious plot or anything like that.  Still, I’m pretty sure that I can now say I’m not a fan of experimental fiction, seeing as my previous attempts (read all about them here, here, here, and here) have all met with – at the very best – detached admiration and mostly quiet bewilderment… or even outright loathing.

But there’s a redeeming feature to this novel and that is, interestingly enough, the writing.  Perec is obviously an excellent writer and this is a masterful translation.  Some of the individual stories are fantastic.  Were they to be taken without this strange self-imposed framework, they would make an excellent short-story novel.  And yet… this framework.  From the preamble and from what I’ve read about the book, it’s clear that Perec wanted to create a sort of literary jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces slowly but surely came together and despite wrong turns or incorrect assumptions, you’d eventually see the whole picture revealed.  And in the last chapter, as he describes everything that you’ve seen in a succinct dozen or so paragraphs, you do see the whole picture: it is this marvelous apartment block and all of the lives going on in that specific moment.  But the problem is, I never felt like I was actually engaged in solving a puzzle.  I never felt like the pieces meant anything.  This is mostly because I didn’t care about a single character.  Despite all of the background given, none of them were all that engaging to me on anything more than a superfluous level.

This may have to do with the obsessive listing of every fucking thing that appears in any room in any of these apartments.  My god, I will never look at any list the same way ever again.  I would conservatively estimate that a full quarter of this book’s page count is given over to lists.  Of objects. Or descriptions of said objects.  There is nothing more alienating to a reader than flipping the page to simply see item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, item, etc.  That was the moment where the book turned from a somewhat annoying experience to a truly aggravating one.  I found myself skimming the lists… and then starting to skim stories that I didn’t find interesting.  It became rather like reading a magazine instead of a book: I might start a story (an article) and, finding that it didn’t interest me, skim the rest and move onto the next one.  I do not feel as though I missed anything, though!  I should feel as though I’ve done a bad thing and not given the book my full attention.  But I don’t – because it did not deserve my full attention, it deserved the minimal amount of my attention.  “Does that adequately answer your condescending question?” is not quite the level of vitriol I built up for the book – I did, in fact, enjoy many moments… but mostly I felt like my time was wasted.

Rating: 2 out of 5.  This is the tough part.  The writing is so wonderful that when it worked for me, it really worked.  The story of the burgling aristos, the story of Bartlebooth, the story of the man who hunted down his baby’s nursemaid and accidental murderer… those stories (and others) were terrific.  I loved them.  But then, this marvelous tool of literary creation is turned to acts of unspeakable banality, which only annoyed me.  And while I know that I can only acknowledge the incredible because of the banal… I don’t read to experience the banal.  I read to escape it.  I read to escape ‘reality’ or, in the case of non-fiction, to better educate myself about it by exposure to something Important.  I do not read to experience the average mundanities.  I lead a relatively exciting life and I still have my fill of the mundane.  I would much rather my books provide my imagination some stimulation – this book saw my imagination sprint off in the other direction.


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