Life: A User's Manual

by Georges Perec, translated by David Bellos. Godine, $24.95. The setting of this long and strange novel, which won the Prix Medicis in France, is a Parisian apartment house containing tenants of widely assorted financial positions. The histories of most of these people are given in folktale style—that is, anecdotally, without exploration of character or analysis of motive. Their quarters, on the other hand, are described in enormous detail, with wallpaper, pictures, furniture, brica-brac, and books conscientiously inventoried. All this gear—and at one point the author devotes two and a half pages to the morning-after debris of a party— is mildly hideous and has little if any relation to the proceedings of the owners. The text also contains mathematical puzzles, verbal conundrums, and quotations from numerous and seemingly irrelevant sources. The exceptional and pivotal figure in this carousel is Bartlebooth, a mad Englishman whose motives do not go unexplained. Equipped with plenty of money and a vast indifference to “what wealth generally brings,”Bartiebooth has decided “in the face of the inextricable incoherence of things” to devote his life to “an arbitrarily constructed programme with no purpose outside its own completion.” The inextricable incoherence of things is presumably the basic theme of the late Georges Perec’s work, but this pessimistic view of life is dramatized with inventiveness, audacity, and even humor.