Life A User's Manual



The painter and collage-ist Robert Rauschenberg came of age during the heyday of abstract expressionism in the New York scene; and while his own work involves a similar level of abstraction (as, for example, 1954's Charlene, pictured above), he often found himself at odds with the dominant rhetoric of the "tortured artist." "There was something about the self-confession and self-confusion of abstract expressionism," he says, "that personally always put me off."

There was a whole language that I could never make function for myself; it revolved around words like "tortured," "struggle," "pain" [...] I could not see such conflicts in the materials and I knew that it had to be in the attitude of the painter [...] I used to think of that line in Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," about the sad cup of coffee. I've had cold coffee and hot coffee, good coffee and lousy coffee. But I've never had a sad cup of coffee.

Elsewhere, Rauschenberg tells his biographer "Work is my joy [...] I don't know anybody who loves work as much as I do."1

I thought about Rauschenberg a lot while reading Georges Perec's Life A User's Manual, and not just because Perec takes the novel to a conceptual height similar to that of the painter's "assemblage" innovations, or because they share a fondness for surprising connections among seemingly unrelated objects and stories, or because they both craft the unusual out of aggressively ordinary materials. No, what really struck me about the two men is the sheer joy they both seem to take in their chosen art form: their ecstatic fearlessness in the face of constraint, or lack thereof. To adopt Rauschenberg's language, I had seen many of the materials Perec uses before: the humorously overdone cataloging of objects, for example, and the repeated obsession with ordering of objects, both appear in the work of Perec's forerunners Samuel Beckett and Julio Cortázar, and his admirer Roberto Bolaño. But seldom have I seen these elements used as tools of sheer delight in the way Perec uses them. In Bolaño's 2666, the forensic cataloging of corpses reinforces the inhumanity of the Santa Teresa killings, and Beckett's characters' obsessive need to catalog the objects and events around them is a symptom of their sinister (yet hilarious) inability to break out of stagnation.

But Perec? It's easy to tell that for Perec, as for Rauschenberg, work—storytelling, word-painting—is a joy. Like his character Bartlebooth, he sets himself a strict yet more or less meaningless structural challenge. In Bartlebooth's case, this challenge consists of an ostensibly zero-sum loop: spend a decade learning to paint watercolors; two decades sailing around the world and painting sea-ports, which are then sent back to France and cut into jigsaw puzzles; two decades, upon his return, solving the jigsaw puzzles, upon which they are reconstituted and returned to their place of composition, dunked in an acid bath, and returned to their original state of pristine white paper. For Perec, the challenge is to construct a novel out of a series of motionless vignettes, each vignette featuring a different room or corridor in the same apartment building, at a moment when one particular event is taking place. Both the author and the character go about their assigned tasks with remarkable vigor, but Perec's performance is more remarkable than Bartlebooth's: whereas the fictioneer is merely competent, the author's narrative expands within his structural framework, flexing and reaching, revealing a tapestry of interwoven stories, all the tales of the current and former residents of the rue Simon-Crubellier as revealed through their rooms: their divans and settees; their crumpled letters lying in waste-paper bins; their traveling trunks stowed in their cellars; their blackened pearls; reproduction wall-hangings; foreign currency; collectible ink-blotters; books and paintings; photographs tucked under arms; all the artifacts of a century or more.

Life seems to me at once a compulsively structured exercise and a mass of undifferentiated stuff. In the face of this dichotomy, it's unsurprising that the book displays an obsession with the different possible ways of ordering things. The passages dealing with this obsession were consistently among my favorites; in addition to being great fun, I think they reflect something important about the book's essence. From a multitude of angles, Perec seems to be asking: "Is there a "proper" order to the objects we encounter? Are some methods of ordering better than others? Are all equally valid?" Here, for example, is Bartlebooth's valet Smautf, fretting over how (or, in the end, WHETHER) to sort the labels from his employer's twenty years of travel:

He wanted, so he said, to sort the labels into order, but it was very difficult: of course, there was chronological order, but he found it poor, even poorer than alphabetical order. He had tried by continents, then by country, but that didn't satisfy him. What he would have liked would be to link each label to the next, but each time in respect of something else: for example, they could have some detail in common, a mountain or volcano, an illuminated bay, some particular flower, the same red and gold edging, the beaming face of a groom, or the same dimensions, or the same typeface, or similar slogans ("Pearl of the Ocean," "Diamond of the Coast"), or a relationship based not on similarity but on opposition or a fragile, almost arbitrary association: a minute village by an Italian lake followed by the skyscrapers of Manhattan, skiers followed by swimmers, fireworks by candlelit dinner, railway by aeroplane, baccarat table by chemin de fer, etc. It's not just hard, Winckler added, above all it's useless: if you leave the labels unsorted and take two at random, you can be sure they'll have at least three things in common.

What strikes me about this passage is Smautf's criterion of "satisfaction": his preference for one classification system over another is pretty much purely a matter of aesthetics. By contrast, Western civilization has a lot of angst tied up in arguments over "true" classification: how closely grouped are humans and apes? Should animals be classed by method of reproduction, type of food, outer body covering, number of appendages, or some other factor? Should pagans be considered closer to Christians than Muslims? What is more valuable: a Fabergé egg or a Tiffany lamp? Here is Perec, arguing that all methods of classification are imposed from without, essentially a form of art, and that we are free to choose whichever schema appeals to us personally. Unless, like Winckler's jigsaws, a puzzle has been crafted with the puzzler in mind (which most of life, Perec seems to argue, is not), there is no "right" or "wrong" order.

Obviously, this idea can play havoc with one's idea of propriety and value, but it can also come as a relief, or even be exhilarating. Here, for example, we see the entire apartment building needlessly agonizing over the correct pronunciation of a neighbor's name, spelled "Cinoc":

Obviously the concierge didn't dare address him as "Nutcase" by pronouncing the name "Sinok." She questioned Valène, who suggested "Cinosh"; Winckler, who was for "Chinoch"; Morellet, who inclined toward "Sinots"; Mademoiselle Crespi, who proposed "Chinoss"; François Gratiolet, who prescribed "Tsinoc"; and finally Monsieur Echard, as a librarian well versed in recondite spellings and the appropriate ways of uttering them, demonstrated that, leaving aside any potential transformation of the intervocalic "n" into a "gn" or "nj" sound, and assuming once and for all, on principle, that "i" was pronounced "i" and the "o," "o," there were then four ways of saying the initial "c": "s," "ts," "sh," and "ch," and five ways of pronouncing the final: "s," "k," "ch," "sh," and "ts," and that, as a result, depending on the presence or absence of one or another diacritic sign or accent and according to the phonetic particularities of one or another language or dialect, there was a case for choosing from amongst the following twenty pronunciations:


As a result of which, a delegation went to ask the principal person concerned, who replied that he didn't know himself which was the most proper way of pronouncing his name.

It turns out that the family's original surname was "Kleinhof," a pronunciation nobody would have considered based on the current spelling, and Cinoc himself maintains that "it wasn't at all important whichever way you wanted to pronounce it." Here we have all the humans in the rue Simon-Crubellier attempting to ascertain the "correct" order and combination of sounds to designate their neighbor, when in point of fact there literally IS no correction pronunciation, since Cinoc's name has traveled so far from the original "authentic" Kleinhof (if indeed "Kleinhof" itself was authentic) that it's no longer reasonable to claim that it ought to be pronounced in the old way, but no definitive new way has been settled upon by Cinoc himself or by anyone else. Thus, it seems to me, Perec often shows us puzzle pieces belonging to no puzzle—or, maybe, objects that have a tendency to look like puzzle pieces, but which are actually some quite different object, unless, like the collector of unica who must decide what qualifies as "genuine" and "one-of-a-kind," we can find a way to make them fit into an aesthetically-created puzzle of our own invention.


Life A User's Manual was, ironically, my April read for the Non-Structured Book Group.

Other posts:

Up next month: Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels!

1All Rauschenberg quotes pulled from Robert Rauschenberg, a full-color monograph with text by Sam Hunter, published by Ediciones Polígrafa.


  • Oh my gosh, this post has left me breathless with delight. Awesome. Captures all the pleasure I felt while reading, and points to so many things that I felt were such fun about the book. Also, it's so concise and well thought out. One of my favorite posts of yours this year! When I have time later today I may have something more relevant to say, but for now, yay Emily! :) Oh yeah, and yay Perec too of course!

  • Wow, very interesting and a little intimidating sounding. Was it complicated to read?

  • I wish I had had the time to read this book with the group. I've had it on my shelf to read for ages. It sounds so very good and now you have confirmed what a great and interesting read I have to look forward to when I do finally manage to read it!

  • Love your emphasis on the visual nature of the novel, Emily, although the Klee quote in the preamble had me thinking of all the details as a form of pointillism! Also enjoy what you say about Perec's "tools of sheer delight" and his take on "methods of classification," esp. since it's easy to think of Life as a 99-chapter Exercises in Style with all the different types of stories in play. Anyway, am very curious whether the record-scratching sensation of all the details that you referred to elsewhere ever went away or whether you just overlooked that in favor of the novel's strengths. Any thoughts? Until then, great post on a great read!

  • Emily, your phrases, "a more or less meaningless structural challenge" and "a mass of undifferentiated stuff," strike me funny because in today's Washington Post there is a review (by Carolyn See) of a book called "Stuff, Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things." You also quote Winckler's observation that, If you take two things "at random, you can be sure they'll have at least three things in common." I wonder if compulsive hoarders and Perec the author differ in that he PUT meaning into his "things" precisely by giving them a highly constricted structure? Counselors try to help hoarders by encouraging them to throw some of their things away, but apparently this creates a great deal of anxiety. What if, for example, they got them to put blue things in one pile, red things in another? I love it when you talk about Perec's joy in story-making. We're all such meaning-seeking beings; what if we could all find such joy, even if it's only in arranging our "stuff"?

  • Sarah: Surely you're joking about the "succinct" portion of that comment, but I'll choose to take the rest as written! ;-) Glad I could bring back some of the delight of reading Perec, & look forward to reading your post!

    Jodie: Very interesting question! I'd have to say that it is definitely "complicated," but the complication doesn't make it difficult, if that makes sense. Most of the group found it very readable. Although actually, I had some trouble with all the physical descriptions. But that's just a quirk of mine. All in all, much less intimidating than one might at first think!

  • Stefanie: I bet you will love it! But I think you were right not to push yourself into reading it with the group when you didn't really have time. My reading was slightly rushed due to Germinal, and I feel like I would have enjoyed it even more if I'd been able to relax into it more.

    Richard: I decided to write about the meat/strengths of the book first, and then about the quirks of my personal reaction later if I had room, and despite Sarah's generous comment that this post is "succinct," I didn't feel I really had room at the end of it! But to answer your question, the record-scratching sensation never went away—I think it's down to my difficulty in picturing physical objects described in text. It's always been a weak point of my reading & listening ability, and frustrates my dad, who can follow a long, complicated verbal description of the technical workings of gears, levers, & calculations without batting an eye. The fact that Perec was so physical-description-heavy made him more difficult for me than, say, Proust or Woolf, who write more about internal landscapes, or Cortázar or Céline, who write about situations. I'm not opposed to a little difficulty, though! And Perec is worth it. Although probably, if it hadn't been for the time constraints, I would have read something a little fluffier between Germinal and this, to give my brain a break. :-)

  • Julia: You always leave the most fascinating comments! Tying Perec's stuff-heavy narrative to compulsive hoarding is a very rich idea - I can imagine a whole thesis paper coming out of it. My partner David, while not a compulsive hoarder, does find it very difficult to get rid of anything, and your comment makes me try to analyze this divide from his perspective; he always wants to keep things because he never knows what he will "need" later on. Maybe this is a kind of meaning-vacuum? Like, one is never sure which category an object will end up belonging to, so one can't definitively classify it and therefore can't get rid of it? It's an intriguing theory. And I think Perec differs, not just in that he assigns meaning where none existed before, but in that he REALIZES that's what he's doing, and he seems perfectly OK with that. I think many/most people stop short of that level of acceptance! :-)

  • Emily, that's such an interesting explanation you gave me! Although I get the idea that not everybody will embrace the kitchen sink full of details that Perec tosses your way in each chapter (it can be overwhelming at times), at the same time I found him so much lighter reading than Proust or Woolf in terms of the attention span required. Loved reading him and Proust and Bolaño this month, but he and Bolaño read like speed freaks while Proust read like he was on downers (no knock on the experience just how it felt during the actual reading).

  • Richard: Brains are so weird! What's interesting is that some varieties of details in Perec read easily to me (the lists of objects found on the stairs, for example), but others, mostly descriptions of objects in relation to other objects, kind of jammed my brain. This was mostly true when there was one spatial-relations description after the other, like when he would describe the contents of each of six pictures decorating a wall, for example, and each one would have multiple objects oriented in relation to one another within it, and he would also be telling you where each picture was positioned in relation to the furniture, doors, windows, etc. It's like there's a very small portion of my brain that can deal with spatial relationships, & he totally maxed it out. By contrast, I could read about the perversities of social interactions or experiments like Cortázar's interpolated-page chapter, all day without my brain feeling overloaded. Go figure!

  • Have to say that I did not feel maxed out at all. I was so freaking happy reading this that I could barely stand it as a matter of fact. Felt like I was getting a Bolano equivalent (looking back to part four) without the psychological turmoil. Became somewhat addicted to "seeing" this book to the point where I was blowing off "should do-s" this week just to read.

    "Here is Perec, arguing that all methods of classification are imposed from without, essentially a form of art, and that we are free to choose whichever schema appeals to us personally."

    And so a successful or accurate manual on life is an impossibility in a way. A relief to me that that is where we land.

    Wondering if I will post again after all or just converse. Maybe a short post.

    Emily, this is a wonderful post by the way!

  • Frances: I know, that's so interesting - it seems like you & Richard were in the majority. Physical description has always been the most difficult thing for me to process in prose, but I've seen that this is not the case for everyone, so I'm not too surprised at the difference. Philosophically, I really agree with you that Perec's idea that all schema are imposed from without, is a relief to hear acknowledged - that was one of my favorite parts of this book, in fact! And also, "difficult" doesn't mean I wasn't happy while reading it, just that I had to work harder than it sounds like some others.

  • This is a fantastic post, Emily! You raise a great point about the problem of true classification. (Didn't Perec work as a librarian or something?)

    I came to really enjoy the physical descriptions. Made me feel grounded, like I could negotiate the apartment block blindfolded.

    I wasn't so sure that this book could be very deep, but it's a different kind of richness than in a lot of Great Books. It's not in the characters, or the human relationships, the lessons learned; it's somehow very abstract, and ironically it's played out in the physical minutiae. Hmm, I don't think I'm being very clear about this — will go finish reading the novel now, and see if my thoughts become more ordered.

  • Isabella, you raise an interesting question about whether Life A User's Manual was "rich" rather than "deep." While I think I understand where you're coming from, I hope you'll come back and let us know if your opinion shifts after you reach the end--because the last pages of the book in particular, both the final chapter and the epilogue, hit me like a ton of bricks. Found it not only a very satisfying ending but a very soulful one as well. Rich and deep. Anybody else have any thoughts on this? P.S. to Emily: Sorry for playing "moderator" on your blog, but I believe you are off the grid on Saturdays!

  • Isabella: Interesting about feeling grounded in the physical descriptions! I found myself most grounded when Perec "expanded" (as I thought of it, possibly inaccurately) into narrative and gave us movement rather than objects alone. I share Richard's intrigue about hearing your thoughts on the final pages, either here or on your blog when I return on Sunday!

    Richard: It ain't Saturday yet! :-) That said, I completely agree with your interest here, and I thought the last few pages packed a wallop, myself. Took things to the next level, and used the listing technique so favored throughout the book to great effect - that repetition of the time and date, and how he revisits everyone in the building in passing before lighting on Bartlebooth: very well done. And the treatment of Valène really backs up my impression of no "true" classification, I think. Anyway, I really am off to bed, but looking forward to the continuation of this discussion on Sunday.

  • It's so interesting because, Emily, I am totally like you, a little slow on picking up on physical descriptions than internal ones. But then I surprisingly found this so much easier to read than Proust or Woolf. Indeed, the brain is so funny. I read the descriptions of objects much slower than the stories (and the obsessive lists, which are also some of my favourite points, like the pronunciation of Cinoc, as you mention!). Like Frances, my brain was singing with a happier Bolaño while reading this.

    As for Isabella's "richer than deeper" comment, my sentiments exactly, until the ending. I had a very similiar reaction to the ending as Richard. It was an affirmation of this book's depth and profundity.

    Emily, I loved your comparison to Rauschenberg. That piece of art is perfect for the book.

  • P.S. I totally forgot to say, your comment about Perec's storytelling, word-painting, as a joy.. I felt it throughout the book.

  • OK, it's as deep as it is rich. But honestly, I think I felt that all along. I didn't mean to use those terms in contrast. What I'm trying to say so ineptly is that Perec has a vey unique quality about him; this book doesn't feel like any other book I can think of, it's more elusive, and very deep, in a good and better way.

  • I just requested through ILL the book about Rauschenberg that you used quotes from. That painting is wonderful, and I like the quote and how you spoke of him. Following the threads... :)

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography