We’re interested in writerly ambition. We’re fascinated with what can be made by a person with enough time and focus and caffeine. […] We have an obligation, to ourselves, chiefly, to see what a brain, and particularly a brain like our own — that is, using the same effluvium we, too, swim through — is capable of.
This whole notion of writing as accomplishment, of watching a very skilled person taking an enormous amount of effort to do something strange, epic, and mystifying lies at the heart of what makes Life a User’s Manual so compelling. For it is a dense, ninety nine chapter novel (of sorts) detailing the human and animal inhabits, all of their worldly belongings and apposite life stories, and the physical and metaphysical detritus of the ninety nine rooms — from basements to bathrooms to stairs to hallways — of a Parisian apartment block at an exact moment in nineteen seventy five. The order and contents of the rooms is not arbitrary, but formally structured under an arcane scheme of Perec’s construction.
Each chapter is not merely a list of every item and person in the room*. It’s full of histories, existential journeys, genre detective stories, puzzles, sordid tales of revenge, interpersonal drama (both petty and dire), word games, print cutouts, and a rather copious amount of paintings described in minute detail.
The theme of Life is encapsulated in the sojourn of one of its principal inhabitants — the wealthy Englishman, Bartlebooth. Long before the time of the novel, Bartlebooth decided to use his immense wealth to learn how to paint watercolors and subsequently spend twenty years traveling all over the world painting ports, both major and obscure, across the world. Whilst traveling, he sent every painting back to another tenant, a master puzzle maker, to turn the paintings into wood-cut puzzles. A good deal of the novel, including the very beginning, middle, and end, is spent meditating on puzzles. Upon his return, Bartlebooth began reassembling the puzzles and sending them to a special craftsman to reconstitute into an unmarred painting to be sent back to their port of origin to be summarily destroyed.
So, life? Like Bartlebooth’s quest: weird and grandiose and beautiful but ultimately kind of pointless. Despite these continent criss-crossing adventures and heaps of possessions collecting over generations, despite fortunes being made and swindled, and despite birth and love and murder and death, the life of everyone in 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, and everyone else– ends. But the rest of the world, like a rickety old horse-drawn cart, continues to trundle and bounce and roll along. Valéne, an aging painter and near lifelong resident, yearns for something different as he approaches his own death:
Sometimes Valéne dreamt of cataclysms and tempests, of whirlwinds that would carry the whole house off like a wisp of straw and display the infinite marvels of the solar system to its shipwrecked inhabitants; or that an unseen crack would run through the building from top to bottom, like a shiver, and with a long, deep, snapping sound it would open in two and be slowly swallowed up in an indescribable yawning chasm; then hordes would overrun it, bleary-eyed monsters, giant insects with steel mandibles, blind termites, great white worms with insatiable mouths: the wood would crumble, the stone would turn to sand, the cupboards would collapse under their own weight, all would return to dust.
But no. Only these shabby squabbles over buckets and tubs, over matches and sinks. And behind that ever-closed door the morbid gloom of that slow revenge, that ponderous business of two senile monomaniacs churning over their feigned histories and their wretched traps and snares.
This reminds me of the late Christopher Hitchens commenting that the moment of his death did not frighten him, but the knowledge that the newspaper would still be delivered the day after was terrifying. The adage life goes on is obvious, but it is difficult to accept that at some point, it will go on without us.
*Mostly. If I have a problem with the book, it is this: a handful of chapters simply are an inventory of everything in a room, written by a man obsessed with lists. See an entire page or two detailing every variety of wine in a character’s wine cellar. Yeah, yeah, you get a great idea of a person via their possessions, but this gets pushed too far at times.