Putting the Pieces Together

Well, it’s about time I made my pronouncements on Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. When I got started on it, I really didn’t know what to expect; after all, my only exposure to his writing had come through material on that mad group of mathy wordplayers, Oulipo, and via Species of Spaces and Other Pieces.

Basically, the whole large tome involves a look at one moment in the various, not-overtly-connected lives of the dwellers of a Parisian apartment building. I wasn’t aware, of course, that all of these little pictures were taking place simultaneously, but upon reaching the end of the tale, that “time frame” (if time frame it is), became clearer– and after checking out a brief précis of the piece, it didn’t surprise me. All the detailed description– which honestly got old after a while; describing surroundings in minute detail does tell a story through objects, but begins to amount to one long list after a few hundred pages– didn’t allow for much action. You’re essentially left, then, at a very brief point in time, but– and here’s the genius– fully loaded with everything each participant is bringing to that blip, with everything a normal, quick glimpse at a person wouldn’t be able to discern. Perec here is giving us the normally-impossible fullness of an individual’s being within one moment, alongside his or her neighbor’s equally full presentation within that same moment. The problem the author makes explicit, of course, is the fact that we can’t see all of this simultaneously; in telling a situation, we’re limited to separate, linear recountings of one individual at a time as a means of presenting this being who, although s/he physically ages “linearly,” if that’s accurate, lives as an existential something within many times and places simultaneously.

I’m aware of the fact that Perec set certain rules and limitations upon himself while writing this book; if you’re interested in these challenges, Wikipedia has a list of them. At this point, the only thing about this writing arrangement that’s of interest to me is the confirmation that yes, quite often, constraints cause creativity to blossom, not die. (Look at Greek tragedy, or Twin Peaks– the latter of which I consider David Lynch’s best work, perhaps because he had to confine himself to the strictures of FCC broadcast rules, and couldn’t fall back [too much] on over-the-top violence.)

What really blew me away, though, was the chronology that follows the book’s index– an appendix that makes clear just how involved and deeply knowledgeable Perec was about the details of his character’s lives, and about how they all fit together. My amazement was of the same genre (but I’ll admit, never got anywhere close to) the level of wonder felt at reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: namely, the giddiness that ensued at the realization that someone had this all inside his brain, kept it straight, and presented it clearly and engagingly. Evidence of rare genius? I’d like to harbor the delusional fancy that the same ability resides in all– or at least a surprising portion– of us as well.


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