I'm not going to review this book because I'm positive I could not do it justice. And I'd hate to spoil it for the legions people who read this blog (ha!) who may feel inspired to tackle this book. But I'll write just a bit about it, and it's possible this may turn into a lengthy post.
This book is about the current and former occupants of an apartment building in Paris, as well as the building itself, located at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier.
First, physical characteristics of the actual book I read: it is paperback, measuring 9 1/4 x 6 x 1 3/8 inches - so it's quite a bit larger than your typical mass market paperback. It weighs 30 ounces - almost 2 pounds. The "story" part of the book is 500 pages, divided into 6 parts, 99 chapters & an epilogue. In addition to these 500 pages, there is a table of contents, a preamble, an outline of the apartment building at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier with notations of current and former residents, an extensive 58 page index of people, places, and other items in the novel, a chronology starting in 1833 and ending in 1975 (the books 'present time'), and an alphabetical checklist of some of the stories narrated in the novel.
This novel is a challenge to my intellectual abilities, and I'm not just talking about the author's use of big words. The story is not straight forward, in fact the first time I read it I didn't even realize what the story was until near the end. And the author assumes a the reader has a very high level of cultural knowledge. Not only of things like history & literature, but also science, medicine, economics, religion, various world wide cultures - from highly advanced civilizations to tribal organizations past and present, languages, the ancient Greeks & Romans, Mathematics, music and on and on. It seems endless.
There are a couple of interesting things about this book, and I shall mention them right now. Puzzles play a large part in the story, particularly Bartlebooths puzzles created from him by Gaspard Winckler. All told, Bartlebooth commissioned 500 puzzles. 500 puzzles, 500 pages. From what I know about Georges Perec, that is probably not a co-incidence. But why? And the next, and this is really odd, has to do with the chapters. There are 99 chapters, so they tend to be short, only a few pages a piece. They are titled with the chapter numbers & a subtitle, followed by a number to indicate how many times this subject has been covered. So chapter 41 is written as "Forty-One On The Stairs, 6", Chapter 42 is "Forty-Two, Foulerot, 2" and so on. All 99 chapters are written in that format except chapter 51. For some reason it is written as "The Fifty-First Valene, (Servants' Quarters, 9)". Why is it written "The Fifty-First" and not "Fifty-One"? This isn't an accident, but I don't know the reason.
There are lots of stories in this book about the current and previous occupants of the apartment building. The stories are interesting and exhausting at the same time. One of the stories is a very detailed examination of a map on Bartlebooth's wall. It is an antique map of the New World, I believe from the very early 16th century, just after it was discovered by Europeans. The story includes the historiography and scholarly debate about Amerigo Vespucci's role (or lack of) in lending his name to North and South America. After several pages of this I was wondering what in the heck this story had to do with anything. Turns out, this was the only officially commissioned map which had a name other than "America" for the new world, and as such was purchased by Bartlebooth's great Uncle James Sherwood, who collected unicum - objects which are the only ones of their kind. James Sherwood was the ultimate source of Bartlebooth's great wealth. Suddenly, the whole map story sort of made sense.
It is very tempting to skip over large sections of some of these stories - when the author decides to list the contents of the various cellars, for example, or when he lists 179 subjects & scenes Valene the artist would like to paint. But my advise is to not skip a word. There is a fair amount of humor & satire in this book, but it's not going to knock you over with obviousness. You have to recognize it when you see it, and it pops up when you least expect it.
The book has a story - rest assured. It's a very strong story and I could tell it to you, but I aint gonna. If you've never read it before you won't know what it is for a long time, but it is there. It's neither a happy nor sad story. It's life, I suppose. The creation theory or big-bang theory aside, life is life. The world chugged along happily before anybody who is alive now was born, and will not stop when everyone who is alive now is dead.
This is one of my favorite books, ever. It just blows away most other books I've read. It's not easy to read, but it's worth it. It's entertaining (I especially liked the story about how the Danglar's (a staid & prominent couple who occupied Bartlebooths apartment before Bartlebooth did) found their kink), and it's thought provoking at the same time. It's actually kind of mind blowing. When you think about it.
I bought this copy off eBay for just a few dollars. You can also get it cheaply on Amazon, or if you're lucky you could find it at a thrift shop for a couple of bucks. It is well worth the investment of time it will take to read it.