Thursday, April 13, 2006


I think this is book #28 for the year, but I'll have to go back and count to make sure. I've been slacking off and falling behind a bit, but if I can get to 34 by the end of April I'll be back on track for 100.

Jerome and Sylvie do market research interviews, asking people what they buy, for whom they vote, what drives their tastes. They make enough money to be petits bourgeois but of course want to be rich. Alienated from their labor, unable to afford the ideal things they see in ads in L'Express or in the windows of trendy English shops in London, they become obsessed with objects and driven to possess newer, better, more fashionable items. We don't learn their names until the third chapter; chapter one is a description of their utopia, a museum of fanciful and luxurious objects wherein empty characters secondary to their possessions make brief appearances. Their names are unimportant because Jerome and Sylvie are empty ego-centric creations, basing personal worth upon the furnishings in their apartment.

Of course Les Choses is an undisguised Marxist critique of capitalism during the "glorious 30" years of post-war economic expansion in France (its subtitle is "A History of the '60s"). Jerome and Sylvie regard luxuries as necessities, and the tormenting desire to possess more and more when they can't afford but the basics drives them nearly mad. Ironically, the research they do for money will be used to create advertisements and class expectations of the sort which in turn they'll see in magazines and films and TV shows, driving them to desire things they don't need at all but regard as necessary for happiness.

I laughed out loud many times reading Les Choses (often while looking up adjectives in a French dictionary), because the fantasies of Perec's main characters are not unfamiliar. I, too, have dreamed of an "ideal" house where I could be nothing but happy; I, too, have fantasized about a dying rich uncle leaving me a fortune; or of stealing or finding enough money to make me content, etc. All of which is patently ridiculous, given that anybody lucky enough to be born in the West in the last 50 years into an economic level above poverty has an unprecedented degree of facility making a good life--given the scale of all of human history and the amount of suffering most humans have endured throughout all of time--I have it made (and Jerome and Sylvie have the exact same thought along the way, only to fall back into the rat-race of desire--as I do daily).

Jerome and Sylvie even attempt to flee in their forties, leaving behind their small but charming Parisienne apartment and taking menial jobs in Tunisia. This decision has catastrophic results, and I winced reading it, because I've recently been daydreaming about the Peace Corps or a house in Mexico. Damn you, ghost of Perec! Get out of my brain!

I wonder what Perec (whose Wis also brilliant) would think of today's glut of reality TV shows wherein a cadre of "experts" raid people's houses cluttered with useless junk, forcing them to have yard sales to finance a "re-organization/re-design" of their sad disordered homes into "ideals" where they can of course be nothing but happy?

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