Portrait of the Artist as a Looney Tune: Perec's Short Fiction

on Friday, March 18, 2011
No author's photograph captures the essence of its subject quite like that of the Frenchman Georges Perec. I imagine many of you have seen it, but if you haven't I strongly suggest you pause here and check it out on the interGoogle. Yep, that's him staring out at you with the crazy hair of Einstein (or Don King), the pudgy face of Elmer Fudd and the almost psychotic eyes of Charles Manson. Quite the combination. In terms of appearance, he was the literary equivalent of Salvadore Dali. Come to think of it, his unbridled creative flair isn't all that far removed from the Spanish painter's either. The prime difference though, was that Perec worked within a constantly changing set of strict rules that he imposed upon himself and his work. Perec loved nothing more than the idea of writing as a functional experiment. Like his compadres in the Oulipo movement, he was obsessed with the confluence of deep theoretical mathematics and literature. Hence we have A Void, a mystery written without the use of a single "E", and it's sister volume Three, written with all the leftover E's and not a single other vowel. And then there's the micro-observation of his great masterpiece, Life: A User's Manual, and the imagined autobiographical dystopia of W, Or The Memory of Childhood.

Perec was never greatly in or out of fashion, but he suddenly seems to be experiencing something of a renaissance, at least in the publishing world. Two of his shorter works have recently been released by two different houses. So if you've always wanted to have a go at Perec but found the longer works a bit daunting, this might be your chance. But be warned. Bite size though they may be, each of these books conceals a razor blade making them far from easy to digest.

An Attempt At Exhausting a Place in Paris is exactly as the title suggests - a second by second experiential account of what Perec witnesses as he sits at a cafe watching what goes on around him over three days. It is repetitive, often nonsensical and almost unutterably tedious. Which, of course, is the point! The staccato form punctuates each minute observance with a slap, and you feel Perec's googly eyes darting from one thing to the next.. There is a degree of intrigue in the idea of the project which ultimately seems aimed at forcing the reader to accept just how dull life, when observed closely, actually is.

Of more immediate interest is the compelling, absurd and often hilarious The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department To Submit a Request For a Raise. Written in a single, seventy-page sentence this book is Perec's attempt to talk through a business flow chart, exploring at each step the two possible outcomes, one of which will send him back to the start, the other of which will allow him to progress. It is stupidly circuitous, but I challenge you to have a go at putting a complex series of ideas, as represented in visual form by single words and arrows, into a coherent narrative. To me, The Art and Craft... is a true triumph of the Oulipo movement, and certainly worth the short time you will spend zipping through it. The flowchart itself is featured on the opening page, and it is fun to flick back to see where Perec is up to at any given point. There is a playful sense of ridicule present too, with Perec making light of the knots into which we tie ourselves when approaching what we consider to be important life moments (in this case asking for a raise).

Perec was clearly nuts, but we as readers are all the richer for it. Fans will find much to ponder and enjoy in these slight volumes and newcomers to one of literature's most playful absurdists can whet their appetites without being clobbered by he author's characteristic obsessiveness. Just keep some brain candy on standby. You're likely to need it afterwards.


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