Monday, 29 February 2016

Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec


I mostly sat at the kitchen table while I read this, while eating oatmeal in the morning, with cream and brown sugar. There were always cups on the table in front of me, a vase of flowers, bowls from my mother with a pink and white floral or checked pattern, silverware, a mug with a picture of The Fat Pony on one side and "Small, Fat and Mighty" written on the other, a box of plastic wrap that I propped the book on while I read, a tupperware container full of white sugar, a pinch pot of salt. 

Then I would move to the living room with the book and read it seated in my corner of our couch, beside a chest of drawers my maternal grandmother made for me, and rest my cup of tea on top of a coaster that was a present from my mother's partner's daughter at Christmas, in front of an iPod speaker that barely talks to my iPod anymore, a lava lamp I haven't plugged in in ages, and a glass block with a celtic knot and fairy lights inside it that a friend made as a guest favour at his wedding. 

I have not, alas, sudden stories of murder to intersperse with these long descriptions of things. I have the things, but not the outbursts of violence amongst the things. 

I could, of course, go on like this for a while, but you probably get the idea. This book is filled with massive lists of things, either as part of a paragraph, as above, or an itemized list. There are lists of furniture, foods, paintings. All the material world, and that's interesting, but...five hundred pages gets to be a bit much.

Then, when there are bits of story, they're almost all murder. All obsession, but at least five or six murders. Related to people living in one apartment flat. And many of those five or six are multiple murders. It...strains credulity a bit. One murder, perhaps. At a certain point, it seems that everyone's just got some murder in their past and...really?

Particularly when this book is called Life: A User's Manual. The material surroundings make sense, but the rest bears so little resemblance to life as I've experienced it. All the murders. All the people making their living selling one particular thing to rich people. (I'm not saying that doesn't happen, but...almost everyone?)

I just don't know what to make of this book. It feels like he's trying something, but I cannot for the life of me figure out what, how this jigsaw puzzle is supposed to fit together. It's the story of an apartment building, in which the richest man is embarked on solving jigsaw puzzles made of watercolour drawings he did all over the world, which will then be taken back to the places they were done and erased.

That's interesting, but it's far from the centre of the book. We keep coming back around to it, but if there's a deeper meaning, then I'm stuck in a mass of blue sky pieces without any sort of clue as to how they're supposed to all fit together.

Maybe it's me. Maybe I'm just not erudite enough for this book. Or maybe it's that the book is needlessly obtuse, and I don't have the sort of obsessive personality that you would need to make this jigsaw puzzle make sense.

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