Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Best Book You've Never Read: Life A User's Manual

What kind of novel needs an index, a chronology, and "An Alphabetical Checklist of Some of the Stories Narrated in This Manual?" In a lot of ways it's hard to answer that question because it's hard to say exactly what Perec's work Life A User's Manual really is. In some ways it's a novel, in others it's an anthology, and in others it's a puzzle book.

Life A User's Manual (note the absence of any punctuation in the title) is the story of "the twenty-third of June nineteen seventy-five" just before "eight o'clock in the evening" at 11, Rue Simon-Crubellier, a building in Paris. The story moves room by room in the building describing the room and the people and objects in it, and then tells the stories of how the people got to be where they are at this moment. In describing it, the premise sounds limiting, but this is one of those rare books ( Ulysses and War and Peace come to mind) that feels like it contains nearly everything. From the much-married actress to the neurotic trapeze artist to the ambitious chemist, to soldiers, junk sellers, manslaughterers and artists, stories from all walks of life are told.

The guiding spirit of the work (because there really is no protagonist in the traditional sense) is Bartlebooth, an eccentric English millionaire who has set himself a curious quest. He learns how to paint watercolors (which takes 10 years) and then he travels to 200 ports around the world, does a watercolor of them and ships the watercolors back to another resident of the building, the carpenter Winckler, who turns them into jigsaw puzzles. When Bartlebooth returns from this expedition, he put the jigsaw puzzles back together in the order they were painted, fuses them, removes the original water color from the wooden blocks and then dips the watercolor into a solvent that erases it.

At the heart of the novel is the question, What should one do with one's life? Bartlebooth has one answer, Winckler another, Valene another. Perec, in showing all of these lives, shows the reader a path to answering that question.

Whether read from beginning to end or a chapter here and a chapter there, Life A User's Manual is a triumph of late 20th-century literature. The novel demonstrates an astute eye for detail, a profound respect for the stuff of humanity, and a tireless commitment to beauty.

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