Life, A User’s Manual


If you really want to make it so, you can condense Perec’s Life, A User’s Manual, down to a series of lists. Truly extraordinary lists. Not your average grocery store or ‘shit to do before I get on the plane’ or ‘reasons to give up booze’ lists. Lists mostly of things–things that tell the stories of his characters’ lives more adequately than their own monologues or actions ever could. The novel is brilliant for many other reasons, but you don’t need me to tell you that. And, of course, the lists get at something very personal about Perec himself. They tell the story of an author who lost both his parents at a young age, and somehow found his way through the terror of the Holocaust; through it all, he developed associations between tangible things and intangible realities, pasts, hopes, despairs…

Instead of swooning over his literary labyrinths, I’ll add another list to Perec’s User’s Manual.

Third floor, apartment next to the main stairwell, first room, living area. A record player is propped up, with its needle on a Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood LP. The girl who lives here, Lindsay, is fairly certain that this record was given to her by her friend, Joey, who also gave her Perec’s novel, and therefore may actually be responsible for this passage. To the left of the record player is a roll-top desk, crowded with two Swedish children’s books from the 1950s (Lillingarna och Trollen, and Tomtebo Barnen), a book that was once a romance mystery twisted back and its edges cut and pasted together so that it forms the shape of a vase with two hand-sized American flags sticking out from its neck, a flashlight, an empty water bottle, Mod Podge, pay stubs from a book store and a non-profit, a shot-sized beer stein from a past Oktoberfest with the words ‘Seattle Weekly’ printed on the bottom; it now holds coins (mostly pennies), a ceramic mannequin of a child in a rabbit costume playing the guitar with one foot missing, Bananagrams, papers from the Department of Homeland Security, pens, a metal slinky with a twist in its center, keys with a rectangular, purple tag that reads in black ink; ‘Treaty of Neerlandia,’ thank you notes, and a crumpled black and white series of photos from a photobooth of four people smiling in front of a zebra-print background. Lindsay has never met any of these people. Next to the desk is the first of four bookcases. On top of the bookcase is one Swedish children’s book (Puttes Äventyr) with cover art that depicts; blueberries, a snail, and a yellow border, two tickets to the San Francisco County Clerk in a gold frame with a cardboard background, a wooden elephant her Aunt Georgeanne gave to one of her siblings on a trip back from Africa in the mid-1990s, a large gold-framed photograph of her and her older brother at young ages in masks and pirates clothing, and two hand-size American flags sticking out of two boxes covered in German reklam book pages that once were cereal boxes but now are stuffed with all of her favorite postcards, newspaper clippings, photographs, and letters. Propped up against the wall are seven framed butterflies pinned to a framed piece of Styrofoam. Her favorites are The Common Jay, with robin’s egg-speckled blue against its black-tipped wings, and The Tawny Rajah, with an auburn color that bleeds from its thorax out across its wingspan.

Next to the first book case is another bookcase, and a chair, and another bookcase, and between the third bookcase and the couch where Lindsay sits while typing now is a wooden statue about the size of a small child, of a woman with an ornate, pine cone headdress. She stands with one hand pulling up at her dress, which appears to be silk or something quite lightweight, although it is really just wood. This statue was given to her by her maternal grandmother, although before that it lived in her grandparents’ household for many years. As a child, Lindsay would offer the wooden lady imaginary tea and treats during the day. At night, she hoped the wooden lady kept her peace offering, as she stood silently over the end of a long, narrow hallway, always staring (eye-to-eye) at Lindsay.