The Distinguishing Characteristics of ‘Life A Users Manual’ by Georges Perec which I Have Now Read


Some of these items may be contradictory. So be it.

In ‘Life A Users Manual’, the lives of all the people who lived in the apartment building at 11 Rue Simon Crubellier in Paris fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

We are introduced to the residents of each apartment in the building by a description of the furnishings in the apartment. Georges Perec takes a sensuous pleasure in describing the objects in the rooms of the various flats in the building. These descriptions of objects are opulent, colorful, exquisitely detailed, and exceedingly long. There were such greater varieties of objects back in the days before all our products became mass-produced, uniform, and always the same with little diversity or spirit.

George Perec is a completist. Perec cannot mention anyone drinking whiskey without describing the picture on the label of the whiskey bottle (“a jovial wench giving a dram to a mustachioed grenadier in a bearskin hat”).

When Perec makes a list, it is sure to be exhaustive and exhausting. When listing all of the food provisions stored on the left hand wall shelves of the Altamonts’ cellar, he lists (I counted; I may have miscounted, but this number is close) 121 items including large jars of mustard and gherkins to sardines in oil to vermicelli to sausage and lentil stew. I found these massive lists which go on for pages and pages quite exasperating. The lists for furniture and room decorations and clothing tend to be somewhat more interesting, but the list of home decorating and outfitting appliances found in a catalog was even less engaging and more lengthy.

This is the busiest novel I have ever read. It wears you down, your resistance.

For some time, I considered the possibility that Perec created these interminable lists of sometimes banal items as a sly comic trick on his readers, and I still believe that may be partially true.

The reader can’t be sure if he is being conned or enlightened. In the long run, it probably doesn’t matter.” – Paul Auster

With his elaborate lush descriptions and long, long sentences, Perec’s style is the opposite of minimalism. I will call his style maximalism.

In many of the sentences I would often lose track of what Perec was first discussing as he moved on to involved situations of his many, many characters or long lists of ornately described objects. This was quite vexing for me.

If you could make your way through each long sentence without getting distracted, you are a better reader than I.

Georges Perec was a member of Oulipo, the Parisian group which had/has as its goal “constrained writing”. One of Perec’s constraints must have been that before telling his characters’ story, he had to describe all the flat’s furnishings and objects of interest. I can see how describing these objects in the rooms could be a spur to creating an interesting story.

I much preferred the sections in the novel where Perec tells a straightforward story without all the clutter.

Certainly ‘Life A User’s Manual’ is often quite annoying for the reader, but it is also endlessly inventive.

Life A Users Manual’ gives the lie to the literary trend of minimalism. Sometimes more is more. Sometimes more is better.

When Perec finally gets around to telling stories about his characters, they are quite fun and humorous to read. If you are not overwhelmed by all the ornate description of objects in front of them, you will probably enjoy them.

Perec expends seven pages capturing the high drama of one of his main protagonists Bartlebooth fitting the 750 pieces of a wooden jigsaw puzzle into a finished picture.

His characters tend to be hugely successful at first but ultimately come to a disappointing end or visa-versa. Many of these human endeavors screw up.

To read Georges Perec one must be ready to abandon oneself to a spirit of play.” – Paul Auster

‘Life A Users Manual’ gives the lie to the literary trend of realism. Sometimes the more far-fetched, the better. Take, for example, when Perec likens the apartment building to an iceberg. I have rarely read anything so humorous as what Perec describes as being in the basement of the building. I’m learning to love lists.

Finally ‘Life A User’s Manual’ is a collection of tales. In the last index in the novel he lists all of the 108 tales therein and in which chapter they can be found.

Perec is mischievous. In the chapter titled “Foulerot, 3” after spelling out all of the other objects in the apartment, Perec spends a couple pages lavishing attention to a painting sitting on the floor of the apartment. Then he proceeds to tell the detective story which is depicted in the painting, a ridiculous story where all three of the suspects have murdered the Swiss diamond trader Oswald Zeitgeber who also commits suicide. The story has nothing to do with the apartment building besides being depicted in that picture, but it is fun to read anyhow.

Perec’s theme in ‘Life A User Manual’ appears to be the uselessness of human endeavor, perhaps starting with reading this novel. One could spend years tracking all the obscure references that Perec makes in ‘Life A User’s Manual’, but that would also be useless.

Here is what Perec seems to be really telling us. The main point in both literature and life is not the end destination but the trip along the way. You and I might as well take our time and enjoy the objects, people, and stories around us.

A more traditional review of ‘Life A User Manual’ will soon follow.


6 responses to this post.

  1. Great review Tony, I honestly didn’t know if I enjoyed this book or not. It was endlessly inventive, but also occasionally exhausting. You’ve captured that dichotomy really well.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Cathy,
      I’m happy to have now joined your elite club of those who have read ‘Life A Users Manual’, but at times it was a grueling struggle with his interminable lists of objects or food. Quite a few times I wanted to give up in exasperation. It’s kind of the literary equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest.



  2. It’s busy and playful and clever and I loved it! 😀

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi kaggsy,
      My absolute favorite part is when he compares 11 Rue Simon Crubellier to an iceberg with most of it below the surface, and then he itemizes everything that’s in the basement. Perec really goes over the top there, and it was hilarious. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person


  3. I like this review so much I might move LAUM to my Will Definitely Read in 2021 list:)

    Liked by 1 person


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