Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Things that are driving me crazy in the user's manual for life

Users' manuals are hard to write. (I know — I've edited translations of some.) Their point is to clearly and simply describe (not necessarily explain) an often complicated and technical process. The more complex the process, the bigger the challenge to present the material unambiguously.

It's not unusual in, say, telephony manuals, to stumble across apparently contradictory instructions or passages of unclear agency.

So it comes as no surprise that in a manual concerning itself with the process of life as it coalesces at 11 rue Simon-Crubellier there should be a few trouble spots.

I'm a little over halfway through Georges Perec's Life A User's Manual, and I've identified 4 things that are driving me crazy.

1. The preamble is repeated in chapter 44. It would be reasonable to assume that these paragraphs were singled out after the fact (Or perhaps they were written first. The passage does after all fairly succinctly pin down the point of the whole book.). The only difference between these passages is that the preamble gives one more diagrammatic example in each of the categories of jigsaw puzzle pieces, and the diagrams are very slightly different. Why, why are these different? If the preamble and chapter 44 are the same, why not let them be the same?

2. I'm a bit put out by the lack of symmetry. The fifty-first chapter is special. Note that it is not "chapter fifty-one," in keeping with how the other chapters are labeled; it's "the fifty-first chapter." It is the kernel. Perec has painted himself into Valènes's room; the self-referential painting itemizes the book's contents. The rest of the novel serves only to flesh out what's listed here. However, it is not the precise physical center of the book (unless it is so by page count? but I can't imagine this holding across translations). In a book of 99 chapters, chapter 50 is the middle one. If we include the missing chapter for the ghost cellar (see below), chapter 51 still would not be the centre, but merely would begin the second half. (Why am I so stuck on this chapter, that it necessarily should be physically, structurally central as well as meaningfully?)

3. Perec's knight's tour — the route by which he leads us through the apartment block — is faulty. Was it a mistake he noticed too far along in the process which he never bothered to rectify? I can't believe it went unnoticed! Was it deliberate? It must be deliberate, but why? What happens between chapters 65 and 66? What makes their relationship unique in this building? (I'm not quite there yet. Hopefully I'll be reading these tonight.) Why does Perec skip over the bottom left cellar, which would've satisfied the knightly condition?

4. All the hexagons! What's with all the hexagons?! There are hexagonal red tiles (page 20); a low table, made of a pane of smoked glass set on a polyhedron of hexagonal cross-section (28); hexagonal vignettes (94); glazed red hexagonal tiles (120); glazed ochre-yellow hexagonal tiles (152); a hexagonal fireplace (191); small brownish hexagonal tiles (191); a hexagonal quartz brooch (219). Hmm, perhaps there aren't as many hexagons as I'd thought. (Maybe I missed some? Why'd I think there were so many?) Actually, there's a lot of geometry: circles, trapezoids, spheres, diamonds, squares, cubes, pyramids, rectangles, lozenges, cylinders, octagons, chevrons, kidney shapes. (And colours!) But for some reason the hexagons stand out for me. Perhaps emphasized by the bees, beeswax, honeycomb. Perhaps I've lived in too many apartments with hexagon-tiled bathrooms.

The precision of detail (falsely?) leads one to believe there is significance in it.

(Borges's "Library of Babel" consists of an endless expanse of interlocking hexagonal rooms. The "Crimson Hexagon" contains a perfect catalog of the libray. The fifty-first chapter is Life's crimson hexagon.)
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