I just finished reading Georges Perec’s 1965 novella, Things: A Story of the Sixties. I wasn’t really planning on reading it, but I caught sight of it on my boyfriend’s bookshelf sitting in between Perec’s more well-known novel, Life: A User’s Manual, and a bit of Poe. I had never read Perec before and was struck with the same cantankerous conviction that seems to always be following me around and striking me on the back of the head with hardback novels — namely: that I really ought to be familiar with this very important author by now (my irritatingly well-read boyfriend’s bookshelf being a menacing source of provocation for these beatings). Therefore, having taken note of the width of Life from where it stood next to Things, I dutifully picked up the latter.
Things is written in the conditional tense, so that everything sounds like it’s a projection into the future. The first chapter is disconnected from the narrative that follows: Perec depicts a comfortable ‘60s apartment — fashionable and modern, though not luxurious or ostentatious. It is, or ‘would be’ lived in, but we never meet its inhabitants. Perec’s protagonists are introduced in the second chapter, but their own apartment is a dingy little affair which stands in stark contrast to the first one. As we get to know Sylvie and Jerôme, it seems that the original apartment is an unattainable, ever-present fantasy for them. In the same way, its spectre lingers in the reader’s mind as we try to find its connection with the proceeding narrative.
Despite this particular instance of identification with the protagonists, for the most part we are kept at arms’ length from them. The narrator usually refers to ‘them’ as just that, and doesn’t actually name them until the second chapter. We don’t know what they look like or what sort of a childhood they had, and the most substantial characterisation we have of them is of their class. They and their friends belong to a large class of well-educated low- to middle-earners. As market researchers, their livelihoods revolve around the same things their minds do: products; things themselves. Their desires are always just beyond their means, and they are kept in a perpetual frenzy of want and frustration. They believe that happiness can only be attained when they have obtained all the right things: the precursive description of the fashionable apartment goes hand in hand with the notion that ‘their means and their desires would always match in all ways. They would call this balance happiness’. Our removed position allows us to see that this is of course an illusion: no amount of things will truly satisfy Sylvie and Jerôme, and even if it could, they seem to be incapable of putting in the work that would be necessary to actually purchase said things. In this sense the reader is positioned as a kind of psychiatrist: we are not close to the protagonists, we don’t particularly like or dislike them, but we have enough insight into their psychology to be able to detachedly observe their state of mind. They are not rounded characters to us, but rather more like case studies.
Does anything about Sylvie and Jerôme sound familiar? Things struck me because Perec is diagnosing the same kind of insatiable materialism in the ‘60s that continues to characterise society fifty years later. The irony is wonderful: Perec has me sitting alongside his narrator, coolly observing a terminal case of consumerism, only for me to then pick up my MacBook Pro to type up a few thoughts on the matter whilst listening to my iPod and relaxing in my silky M&S dressing grown. The dawn of the technological age has only served as a catalyst for this kind of materialism: as phones, laptops and tablets become more advanced we feel the need to continuously trade in our older models for more efficient ones in order to keep up.
Sylvie and Jerôme represent an advanced case of this need for things: they can find no happiness beyond the ring of cash registers and the smell of new furniture; but Perec is not necessarily denouncing a modern, consumerist society. In his introduction to the story, David Bellos writes that ‘Things aims to exhaust all that can be said about fascination, and, more particularly, to explore what words like happiness and freedom can mean in the modern world’. He goes on to say that Things ‘was read, in the 1960s, as a sociological novel, and, very often, as a denunciation of consumer capitalism. […] For Perec, however, it was not that at all’. While Bellos is right to say that the exploration of fascination is central to this story, I would suggest that even beyond fascination, desire is what Perec sees at the heart of modern existence.
Though their insatiable desire for things causes Jerôme and Sylvie much frustration and bitterness, it is also what keeps them from becoming too comfortable, keeps them in flux. It is only after they move to Tunisia and find themselves empty of desire that they become really pitiable: ‘They had lost all their plans, all their impatience. They looked forward to nothing, not even to holidays too far over the horizon, not even to returning to France. They felt neither joy, nor sadness, nor even boredom, but they did wonder sometimes if they still existed, if they really existed. […] Their life was like an unrelinquished habit, an almost unruffled tedium: a life sans everything.’ It is their desire that actually connects Sylvie and Jerôme to the world by forcing them to look outside themselves; without it, they cannot find a reflection of themselves in their surroundings and so fall into existential uncertainty. Just as Perec uses Sylvie and Jerôme to warn against the onrush of desire that a consumerist society stimulates, he also cautions against the loss of all desire, pointing to it as one of the ways in which we come to know ourselves in relation to this new world of things.