by Georges Perec
Life: A User's Manual centers around a Paris apartment building at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier. Each of the 99 chapters relates to some location in the building. Although the number of characters is bewildering, many of the stories relate, however peripherally, to Bartlebooth: an eccentric Englishman who devoted decades of his life to creating 500 watercolors and having them made into jigsaw puzzles, and the rest of his life to reassembling the puzzles, detaching the paintings, and then destroying them. The jigsaw puzzle, then, is Perec's central metaphor and the book itself is a puzzle at several levels.
The most prominent feature of the 99 stories is an obsession for enumeration: almost every story describes the contents of a room, the major events in someone's life, or otherwise exhaustively characterizes a group of objects or events. Maybe Perec is telling us that we must sift through lots of irrelevant details to piece together the meaning of everything? I'm not sure. In any case, while the enumerations are sometimes tedious, the book is in general a pleasure to read -- the stories are varied and often hilariously exaggerated. As is fitting for a puzzle, the whole is more valuable than the sum of its parts.
copyright © 2002 John Regehr