The drastic curtailments of modernism--a Mies van Der Rohe tower, a Mondrian grid, a Beckett stage, a William Carlos Williams poem--were a code to break through the proliferation of misleading messages in modern life, to an underlying reality. The codes of post-modernism are devised for their own sake; there is nothing beyond them. A smoke signal is an interesting pattern of smoke, a semaphore a striking collection of angles. The non-signaling signals tell us:
That the world is unknowable and, if known, would be absurd. That all we can grasp are individual items and not what connects them. Individual cars but not transportation. Individual acts of love, but not love's mediation between self and a larger order of meaning. Individual acts of achievement: strokes of a jack that lifts us no higher because it rests on mud. Pearls without a string: We can't wear them; we pick them up one by one, and when one is picked up, another drops and rolls away.
Modernism's temperature was cold, though the cold could burn. Post-modern temperatures are cool or tepid. Anger and violence is represented, but as decor. The real anger underneath comes out as a kind of passive withholding. The pearl is blamed for its lack of a string, but the blame is delivered all but invisibly.
French writer Georges Perec, though not widely known in this country, is one of the great post-modernist spirits. Yet, as happens with the outsized figures in a style or a discipline--generals who detest war--he is partly a stranger to its purposes. Both his world and his style are in fragments, and unstrung; but each fragment has a sense of magical wholeness, as if the world's genetic code were imprinted on it.
"Life: A User's Manual," published here in 1987, is a massive, dizzying collection of fictional data about several dozen tenants in a large Paris apartment house. Furniture, shoe laces, dust bins, a romance, a crime, a hand reaching out for a newspaper, are told of in equal and apparently dispassionate detail. Yet bit by bit, a universe of colors and emotions, of human stirrings and failures is created. Time moves them all, and Perec's masterpiece manages to make time palpable, fragrant and sad.
There are hints of Perec's capacity for reverence amid alienating chaos in two of his earliest works: "Things" and "A Man Asleep." The novellas appear now in translations, respectively, by David Bellos and Andrew Leak.
They are companion pieces, in a way. Written in the mid-1960s, each treats of the utter disconnection between people and their lives. In the first, a young couple long for nice things and a gracious style of living, but are unwilling to get into the slog and sacrifice of freedom that is required to secure them. In the second, a young man, similarly unwilling, turns into a recluse.
"Things," being full of them, is the more engaging of the two, though less focused and ultimately, perhaps, less memorable. There is a lot of bittersweet fun in the story of Jerome and Sylvie and their material dreams.
Students at the Sorbonne, they are too taken with their grasshopper freedom to endure the ant-like ordeal of working for a really good degree. They go into market research: in those days, in France, a newly discovered, free-floating occupation. They interview Parisian housewives about potato-peelers or, gaining status, they travel around France to inquire about the potato-peelers in Bordeaux and Grenoble.
They free-lance--a full-time job would threaten their late-morning discussions--and improvise midweek expeditions with equally loose-hanging friends. They have enough money for a young couple's initial trade-offs: a tiny, grubby apartment, but in a pleasant neighborhood; cheap, second-hand furniture, but one nice piece; scrappy, unmatched dishes for potluck feasts.
But nothing accumulates. They come from lower-middle-class families; there is nothing in reserve. "They had no past, no tradition. There were no inheritances to wait for." And they cannot harness themselves to building anything up. Even at the feasts, no real pains are taken:
"They liked the visible signs of abundance of riches; they would have no truck with the slow process of elaboration which turns difficult raw material into dishes." It was all pate, eggs in aspic and salads bought from the charcuterie.
Bit by bit, though, the improvisation comes to seem less exciting. Their friends are no longer available; they have taken 12-hour-a-day executive jobs; they support babies and country cottages. Jerome and Sylvie hang back. "They could have made it, but all they wanted was to have it made . . . they wanted life, enjoyment, but all around them enjoyment was equated with ownership."
Eventually, after a short-lived, disastrous effort to find the effortless good life in Tunisia, they drop their illusions. Like their friends, they wangle executive jobs, though in the provinces. They travel there by train; they dine in the first-class diner.
"They will order two whiskeys. They will look at each other one last time with a smile of complicity. The starched table linen, the solid cutlery engraved with the arms of the Compagnie des Wagons-Lits, the weighty, emblazoned crockery will seem like a prelude to a sumptuous feast."
Finally, they too have it made. And then Perec adds: "But the meal they will be served will be simply tasteless . . . " The ant's store is as futile as the grasshopper's dreams.
Yet the author is not simply lampooning Jerome's and Sylvie's dream-maneuvers. He writes with a ghost of tenderness. It is detached tenderness, like that of an archeologist who uncovers the ruins of a great city. That they are ruins, he has no doubt; that the city was beautiful is not affirmed, exactly, but offered as a troubled hypothesis.
"A Man Asleep" is told in the second-person singular, a device made celebrated by Perec's older contemporary, Michel Butor. It is the gauntest of forms. A solitary, speaking in the first person, has, at least, the dignity of the "I" and its vestigial sense of worth. To address oneself as "you" takes even that away; it is to approach oneself as a beggar.
"You" is a young man tired of being a link in the chain of his own life. He was "a worthy son, a brave Boy Scout." Now, trying to study for exams, he is "a student who could have done better." He looks ahead to being a middle manager, an esteemed colleague, a good husband. And he refuses: "No. You prefer to be the missing piece of the puzzle."
He drops classes and friends; he becomes "a man of leisure, a sleepwalker, a mollusk." Staying in his room by day, he walks at night, working to kill off all desire and choice. He chooses his routes by random formula. He reads every word in the newspaper, applying an equal and different attention to a Florida storm and a crossword puzzle. He goes to museums to look at pictures "as if they were part of the wall."
He wants "to learn how to last . . . to want nothing." To scale down his requirements so that nothing can touch him. And gradually, he realizes, this refusal of choice is itself a choice. The realization transforms an emptiness which, for a reader, was becoming awfully empty. Suddenly Perec shows a beauty on the far side of the void; a humanity on the far side of refusal.
"Solitude teaches you nothing . . . indifference teaches you nothing," the student tells himself. "It really does not matter whether you wish or you do not wish . . . your refusal is futile. Your neutrality is meaningless. Your inertia is just as vain as your anger."
And in a final, suddenly radiant passage, he imagines thousands of Parisians standing in a rain-swept square, each in an individual reverie. He reflects:
"No, you are not the nameless master of the world, the one on whom history had lost its hold, the one who no longer felt the rain falling, who did not see the approach of night. You are no longer the inaccessible, the limpid, the transparent one. You are afraid, you are waiting. You are waiting, on Place Clichy, for the rain to stop falling."