Stacy's Reviews > Life A User's Manual

Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec
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Dec 23, 2007

it was amazing
Recommended to Stacy by: ryan platt
Recommended for: anyone with a pulse and a smidgen of curiosity and intelligence about the world.

i may have mentioned this before, but i had an ephiphanal reader experience last fall. last fall i was lucky enough to score a ticket to hear salman rushdie read at cornell. the experience left me not only with a hankering to read sir rushdie, but also to make a solemn promise to myself to read "less crap." a disclaimer: i don't think that any of what i read is actually "crap" but that my promise to myself was invoking rather a desire to put myself forward at least a fraction of the distance that a truly gifted writer extends themselves when creating a masterful piece of literature.

listening to rushdie, i realized i'd been having flings with lots of small novellas that required really nothing of me as a reader. they were passably enjoyable, in many cases i had become familiar with the writer's style and their cadence and this familiarity is pleasing to a reader, but i really hadn't sunk my teeth into anything that required of me any more than an ability to read. not that i needed to tackle the canon, whatever that was, but that life is short, man, and there are some amazing, nuanced, change-your-life tomes out there and i'd been avoiding them.

so that in mind, i tore through rushdie's midnight's children (which entirely delivered on that front), and then cast about looking for the "what next."

having a partner that majored in french literature is always handy in such situations. he recommended this novel. i let it fester on my bookshelf for a while (if 600 pages isn't intimidating, i don't know what is), and then finally put it in my suitcase to take back with me to berlin (where i am living/working remotely for a stretch).

the novel is honestly, one of the most amazing things i have ever read. you are given many stories within the bindings, and many lifetimes. the novel takes you through the lives of all the inhabitants in an 1960's walk-up flat in paris, but with a difference. the rooms, the ephemera and the stories of each of these people carry equal importance throughout the novel, and while epic, it is not the traditional epic narrative of one or two family's lives. in the back of the book, preceding a rather fantastic index, is an architectural floorplan of the building, to which i found myself referring to in every story. each block stands for one person's abode, and often in italics above the current resident is the name of the previous long-term tenant. the stories of the lives of those in the building will leave you slack-jawed. you will wonder about the lives of those you know passingly or not at all, those that you encounter closely or obliquely in your everyday life. there are no morals or moralizing in this tome, and you will find yourself often on the heels of yet another impossibly captivating read about the details of one of the tenant's lives, and then immediately be cast into three pages discussing three paintings hanging on a wall in another apartment.

this last artifact is something that exasperated my boyfriend, r., who has read it twice in the original french. perec once worked as an archivist at a neurophysiological research laboratory, which may account for his vast interest in the kinds of minutae described in the book (minutae which, in the original french, accounts for some pretty wacky and often anachronistic language that isn't always found in french-english dictionaries). you will find yourself encountering lists upon lists, and wondering what it all means, or worse, tempted to skim ahead to the next great story. DON'T. skim the lists, that is. as you read on, you will come to understand that the intention of the author both towards the novel and towards you, the reader, is to understand that the ephemera, the lists, the lives of things are every bit as important as the impossibly fantastic stories told side-by-side about the characters inhabiting the building. that while experiences gives these characters meaning in our eyes, these people's possessions, ephemera and clutter give meaning to theirs. you will find that they are given equal consideration and measure. you may further find yourself being surprised to agree with perec on his choosing and understanding of this matter.

there is a kind of loose narrative thread in the novel, a few characters you are made to care about more than others. i don't want to give it away, but suffice it to say that each night that i sat down to read another 10, 20, or 100 pages of this novel, ryan was enjoying reliving his reading through my retelling of some little gem that i had just gotten to, or expanded my understanding of something that had occurred 200 pages earlier, or what-have-you. another note about reading it: it's not the kind of novel that you necessarily feel compelled to read straight through in a compressed amount of time. at least i didn't. i took a few months with this novel, and the pacing and manner of storytelling in it is such that it can be picked up and left off reasonably at most places in the book.

when you finally finish it, i don't doubt that you will be left with the feeling that you have just had a once-in-a-lifetime reading experience, and that you are a better person for it.
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Reading Progress

December 23, 2007 – Shelved
Started Reading
June 1, 2008 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Taylor (new)

Taylor Rushdie really is a phenomenal speaker. I've seen him twice this year, and each time I adore him more and more - and he was my favorite writer well before I saw him speak, though I've only read three of his novels.

Great review, I'm definitely going to have to add this to my list.

message 2: by Michael (new)

Michael I began this novel years ago and, during a move, misplaced it. Months later, when I found it, the urge to read on had disappeared (I was about a hundred pages in or so).

Just last week I took it off the shelf and put it by the bed. Serendipitous to come across this review just now, as it is exactly the kick-in-the-pants I needed to get started on it.

Great review.

message 3: by Lyv (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lyv Amazing review. I've had this book on my shelf for years, and stopped reading it every time I've started.Now I know I should start again, and keep going!

message 4: by s.penkevich (new) - added it

s.penkevich You convinced me. I am tackling this novel next. Oh, and this is a great golden review by the way.

Lawrence Windrush This novel is a landmark and is probably the greatest postwar novel since James Joyce's Ulysses.

Meek I'm now having the same kind of experience. I wish this book never ends, it's a masterpiece that keeps coming to my mind even when I'm not reading it. I want to stay here forever!

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