La Vie mode d'emploi is an immensely complex and rich work; a tapestry of interwoven stories and ideas and literary and historical allusions, based on the lives of the inhabitants of a fictitious Parisian apartment block, 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier (no such street exists, however, the quadrangle Perec claims Simon-Crubellier cuts through does exist in Paris XVII). It was written according to a complex plan of writing constraints, and is primarily constructed from several elements, each adding a layer of complexity:
This is a story imagined by Perec when working on a large jigsaw puzzle, and is briefly this:
Between World War I and II, a tremendously wealthy Englishman, Bartlebooth (whose name combines two literary characters, Herman Melville's Bartleby and Valery Larbaud's Barnabooth), devises a plan that will both occupy the remainder of his life and spend his entire fortune. First, he spends 10 years learning to paint watercolors under the tutelage of Valene, who also becomes a resident of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier. Then, he embarks on a 20-year trip around the world with his loyal servant Smautf (also a resident of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier), painting a watercolor of a different port roughly every two weeks for a total of 500 watercolors.
Bartlebooth then sends each painting back to France, where the paper is glued to a support board, and a carefully selected craftsman named Gaspard Winckler (also a resident of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier) cuts it into a jigsaw puzzle. Upon his return, Bartlebooth spends his time solving each jigsaw, re-creating the scene.
Each finished puzzle is treated to re-bind the paper with a special solution invented by Georges Morellet, another resident of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier. After the solution is applied, the wooden support is removed, and the painting is sent to the port where it was painted. Exactly 20 years to the day after it was painted, the painting is placed in the seawater until the colors dissolve, and the paper, blank except for the faint marks where it was cut and re-joined, is returned to Bartlebooth.
Ultimately, there would be nothing to show for 50 years of work: the project would leave absolutely no mark on the world. Unfortunately for Bartlebooth, Winckler's puzzles become increasingly difficult and Bartlebooth himself becomes blind. A crazed art fanatic also intervenes in an attempt to stop Bartlebooth from destroying his art. By 1975, Bartlebooth is 16 months behind in his plans, and he dies while working on his 439th puzzle.
One of Perec's long-standing projects was the description of a Parisian apartment block, as it could be seen if the entire facade would be removed, exposing every room. Some illustrious precedents of this theme can be tracked to The crippled devil (1641) by the Spanish Luis Vélez de Guevara (partially adapted to 18th century France by Lesage's Diable boiteux) and The Master and Margarita by the Russian Mikhail Bulgakov. Another well-known literary puzzle is Hopscotch by the Paris-resident Argentinian Julio Cortázar. Perec was obsessed with lists: such a description would be exhaustive down to the last detail.
While Bartlebooth's puzzle narrative is the central story of the book, 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier is the subject of the novel. 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier has been frozen at the instant in time when Bartlebooth dies. People are frozen in different apartments, on the stairs, and in the cellars. Some rooms are vacant.
The narrative moves like a Knight in a chess game, one chapter for each room (thus, the more rooms an apartment has the more chapters are devoted to them.) In each room we learn about the residents of the room, or the past residents of the room, or about someone they have come into contact with.
Many of the characters at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, such as Smautf, Valene, Winckler, and Morellet have a direct connection to Bartlebooth's quest. Thus, in those rooms the Bartlebooth puzzle-narrative tends to be carried further. Many of the narratives, however, are linked to Bartlebooth only by being related to the history of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier.
A Knight's Tour as a means of generating a novel was a long-standing idea of the Oulipo group. Perec devises the elevation of the building as a 10×10 grid: 10 storeys, including basements and attics and 10 rooms across, including 2 for the stairwell. Each room is assigned to a chapter, and the order of the chapters is given by the knight's moves on the grid.
These elements come together with Perec's constraints for the book (in keeping with Oulipo objectives): he created a complex system which would generate for each chapter a list of items, references or objects which that chapter should then contain or allude to. He described this system as a "machine for inspiring stories".
There are 42 lists of 10 objects each, gathered into 10 groups of 4 with the last two lists a special "Couples" list. Some examples:
The way in which these apply to each chapter is governed by an array called a Graeco-Latin square. The lists are considered in pairs, and each pair is governed by one cell of the array, which guarantees that every combination of elements is encountered. For instance, the items in the couples list are seen once with their natural partner (in which case Perec gives an explicit reference), and once with every other element (where he is free to be cryptic). In the 1780s, the great mathematician Leonhard Euler had conjectured that a 10×10 Graeco-Latin square could not exist and it was not until 1959 that one was actually constructed, refuting Euler.
To further complicate matters, the 38th and 39th list are named "Missing" and "False" and each list comprises the numbers 1 to 10. The number these lists give for each chapter indicates one of the 10 groups of 4 lists, and folds the system back on itself: one of the elements must be omitted, and one must be false in some way (an opposite, for example). Things become tricky when the Missing and False numbers refer to group 10, which includes the Missing and False lists.
The entire block is primarily presented frozen in time, on June 23, 1975 just before 8pm, moments after the death of Bartlebooth. Nonetheless, the constraints system creates hundreds of separate stories encountered in the different rooms, concerning inhabitants of the block past and present and the other people in their lives. The story of Bartlebooth is the principal thread, but it interlinks with many others, for example his love for Marguerite Winckler, the wife of the jigsaw-puzzle maker, for which (he believes), Winckler is punishing him with puzzles of increasing complexity.
Bartlebooth's failing sight and the fiendishness of the puzzles increasingly steer his plan off course. Furthermore, several collectors of unique or eccentric artifacts choose his paintings as targets to acquire, and he is forced to change his plans and have the watercolors burned in a furnace locally instead of couriered back to the sea, for fear of those involved in the task being bribed.
Another key thread is the painter Serge Valene's final project. Bartlebooth hires him as a tutor before embarking on his tour of the world, and buys him a flat in the block. He is one of several painters who have lived in the block over the century. He plans to paint the entire apartment block, seen in elevation with the facade removed, showing all the occupants and the details of their lives: Valene, a character in the novel seeks to create a representation of the novel as a painting. Chapter 51, falling in the middle of the book lists all of Valene's ideas, and in the process picks out the key stories seen so far and yet to come.
Both Bartlebooth and Valene fail in their projects: this is a recurring theme in many of the stories.
While the book can be read linearly, from start to finish, it can be just as enjoyable to dip in and out of: for this purpose, an appendix section contains a chronology of events starting at 1833, a 70-page index, a list of the 100 or so main stories, and a plan of the elevation of the block as the 10x10 grid. The index lists many of the people, places and works of art mentioned in the book: