The Novel as Aleatory Inventory : LIFE A User's Manual by Georges Perec, translated by David Bellows (David R. Godine: $24.95; 581 pp.)

Life, like the jigsaw puzzles that are one of its central motifs, comes boxed and disassembled in the late Georges Perec's joyful and immensely prolific play of wit and sadness. We do not so much read it as put it together; and when, after 581 pages, we are through, we are not through.

We are sated with images, a picture emerges from them, but we have left a lot out. We could go back and do it again and find a variation; we could go back several times and, picking up signals that had got by us, find new variations. Some of us will; not immediately, but once in a while.

I read James Joyce's "Ulysses" three times--as a teen-ager, at 35 and at 45--and it was a different book each time. You do not, Heraclitus said, swim twice in the same river. Above all, you do not fish the same fish twice out of the same river.

Joyce strung his compendium upon a double voyage, Bloom's and Dedalus', undertaken in the course of a single day. Perec, who died five years ago, uses space rather than timeas his unity: the 32 dwellings--along with cellars, halls and staircases--in a Paris apartment house of belle epoque vintage. Thebook's engine is not a voyage but the memories, intuitions and all-inclusive vision of a dying painter, the building's senior resident.

It is an engine that barely whispers through all the variegated and many-layered length of "Life: A User's Manual." Valene, the painter, is not a narrator. At most, he is a flickering consciousness that encompasses everything else, raising the question of whether all the lives, histories and objects in "Life" are anything more solid than a dying thought, or any more significant than a scrap of newspaper on a cellar floor. (Its bit of headline is scrupulously related, just in case.)

Otherwise, Valene is one more of the dozens of lives that get themselves told, in fragments, along with their possessions, furniture, ancestors, chance encounters, the further chance encounters of these chance encounters, the contents of books they are carrying, the family tragedy of a workman come to make repairs.

"Life" is a giant inventory. (In telling about one of the residents who has built up a prosperous business selling do-it-yourself equipment, the author includes several pages from her business catalogue.) The inventory includes personal and family histories of the marvelously assorted characters who inhabit the building; it also recounts in minute detail each object upon a shelf. It will look into a room and present, as if it were a painting or a freeze-frame, the exact posture, dress and expression of two people sitting there; and then it will depart, possibly or possibly not circling back later to tell more.

For example, we get an account of a room in the apartment of Hutting, another painter, whose specialty is reproducing masterpieces--the Mona Lisa, for example--and painting a gray haze over them.

One of his bookcases contains "Kitsch objects from a 1930s Inventors Exhibition: a potato-peeler, a device for stirring mayonnaise with a little cylinder that releases the oil drop by drop, a tool for fine-slicing hard-boiled eggs . . . a bottle of 7-Up, dried flowers under glass in little romantic or rococo settings made of painted cardboard and cloth. . . ." This goes on for three pages; then we have descriptions--equally detailed and inert, as if they were another kind of knicknack--of two prospective clients negotiating with Hutting's secretary. We do not hear the negotiations or their outcome.

But then, in each apartment, the inventory of objects gives way to an inventory of lives. Some of the stories are cursory; others are fascinating, comical or plain incredible. Some are social satire, others are picaresque, a few are wonderfully melodramatic.

There is the saga of the Beaumonts: an archeologist who kills himself after excavating in northern Spain, leaving his dancer widow, and a daughter, Elizabeth, who is savagely murdered in a cabin in the Ardennes. Later in the book, we learn that the killer is a Swedish diplomat who had employed Elizabeth as a nursemaid, whose baby had died under her care, whose wife had gone mad and killed herself, and who spent years and a fortune hunting Elizabeth down.

There is a cook who left his young wife to join a band of strolling players, emigrated to America, took up cooking again, became immensely successful and returned 40 years later. The wife listened to his story and threw him out, having waited those 40 years for the pleasure of doing so. There is the concierge whose husband, an Army clerk, died from nibbling the erasers on his pencils. There is Rohrschach, successively a clown, a circus manager and a trader who made and lost a vast fortune in cowrie shells and who ends up as a television executive.

The story that dominates the rest is that of the building's richest and most conspicuous resident, Bartlebooth. He spends 10 years learning to paint, though he has no talent for it. (Valene is his teacher.) He spends 20 years traveling around the world doing a painting of each of 500 port cities. Each painting is pasted to plywood and cut--by another building resident--into a 750-piece jigsaw puzzle.

Back from his travels, Bartlebooth assembles the puzzles at the rate of one every two weeks. Skilled craftsmen are hired and chemical processes invented to bond the pieces together and efface the lines. The paper is lifted off the wood, thus becoming the original painting once more. This is then taken to the site where it was painted, and washed clean; leaving, finally, the original blank sheet.

It is a grand, hair-raising image of human enterprise; and even then, it fails. Bartlebooth weakens, goes blind and dies before he can finish eradicating his own work.

There are dozens of other stories, enchanting and frustrating at the same time. They are like dozens of beginnings of novels, detailed, clearly preparing to take off, and suddenly disappearing. The author gives no more value to them than he does to inventorying a bookcase. But--and this is the core of this extraordinary work--he gives them no less value either.

The the seemingly random detail is philosophical. It is a Wittgensteinian philosophy: All we can say about reality is that it is everything that is the case. It does not choose; it tells us that it cannot choose. This is not a cold declaration, though; it is an immensely sad one.

It is here that the achievement of Perec lies. (His translator, David Bellows has put the French into a wonderfully lucid and supple English.) His book, in a formal sense, is identical with its contents. In effect, it is made up of Bartlebooth's jigsaw pieces.

But beyond that, what we are left with is not an inert contemplation of the random nature of life and the impossibility of finding meaning in it. Our contemplation is extremely active and borders upon passion. Perec's artistry has achieved a perfect balance between allure and imponderability. To say that all these fragmented lives, their histories, the objects they collected are meaningless is to say something tragic, as well as very funny. After I finished, I was homesick for the bric-a-brac whose detailing had so frequently irked me.

Perec's book is far from simple to read. Perhaps it could use a user's manual of its own. Few readers will be able to persevere in the detailed inventories of rooms, genealogies and odds and ends.

These sections, I suggest, should be read with alert inattentiveness. It is like tracking partridge through the autumn woods. Every bit of red and gold dapple should be scanned, but lightly. Otherwise, when the partridge moves, we will miss it out of sheer fixation upon a wilderness of detail. Perec's woods explode with life and it would be a pity to lose any.

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