Feeling like Georges Perec

Let me start this post by saying that I adore Georges Perec. (Look at him on this French postage stamp. How can you not love that face?) Species of Spaces and Other Pieces is, for reasons that astound and befuddle me, one of the most important books that I’ve ever read. I encountered this book in my History of the Essay course at Ohio University where it was included on intense and fascinating reading reading list assembled by Dr. David Lazar. (This course was one of my favorites through six years of graduate work, but maybe more on that another time.) The amazing thing is that I don’t particularly care for things like Perec’s work. I’m one of those people who is all about the narrative–give me story, give me character, let me latch on and sink in. Perec’s work–even his fiction, which I have not successfully read–resists all of those things that I usually love. Species of Spaces is playful, experimental, resistant. It uses footnotes and marginalia, but not in any way that clarifies. It puzzles and paces in the Oulipo manner. Each note, each point, spirals the reader off into another direction. The book, which is a collection of a number of Perec’s writings, changes topic quickly, easily. It discourages immersion in any one direction, and yet, he asks, seriously, for the reader to consider teaspoons, the blank center of a page, staircases and airports and how we might live in them.

It’s that last, of course, that rings in my brain today. And I’m wickedly vexed that I don’t have my copy of Species of Spaces with me, that I have to do my quoting from memory (bound to be inaccurate) and without citations (blasphemy, horror, crisis), but I can’t get it out of my mind. Because I am in an airport this morning, on this, my twenty-ninth birthday, due to spend most of the day flying. (It began with getting out of bed at 4:00 a.m. I am definitely calling a Mulligan on my birthday and re-celebrating sometime next week.) An early flight out of Casper has led me to a two-hour pause in Denver, early in the day, and I am thinking of Georges Perec, who was fascinated by airports, who asked, in Species of Spaces, how we might live more in them. Perec was writing well before 9/11, before the days of intense airport security and screenings, before only the people going somewhere had any business in the airport proper. I am “going somewhere,” I belong here. I have the right to these small shops and all of these convenient (and overpriced) dining options. Here in Denver, I have the right to look at these tiled floors with their metallic dinosaur inlay. (Okay, that one I’m grateful for. How freaking cool is that? Stegosaurus–world’s best dinosaur–hanging out on the floor.) In many airports, those “rights” include things like access to art displays that aren’t anywhere else. (It includes the right to duty-free purchases of very expensive things like perfume and alcohol. Every time I’m in an airport, I think I should do all of my holiday shopping in one fell swoop, but how would I get everything home? When I’m in an airport, the last thing I want to do is add to the things I carry. This entry is feeling like a reference to everything. Hello, Tim O’Brien. Hello, Pico Ayer. Hello, hello, hello.)

On the whole, if it weren’t for the strange alienation that is modern traveling–the immediate separation from whomever has dropped you off at the airport, the invasions of privacy (and I understand the precautions and I accept that, but I do feel a little twinge every time I toss that clear plastic bag on the scanner belt: yes, that’s my astringent, yes, my skin has no idea how to cope with this dryness and this altitude; yes, that’s my deodorant, yes, friendly agent, you now know what my underarms smell like)–airports would be amazing places to “live” in. I don’t literally mean like that Tom Hanks movie from half a decade ago, but they are fascinating. There’s such an intersection of humanity in these places, so many things to see and watch. It is all of life’s experiences, gathered in one space.

And it isn’t even just our species in these spaces. Here in Denver this morning, I have been watching, with a kind of ridiculous glee, the sparrows that have somehow found their way into the place. They seem fat and happy, picking up the crumbs of our terminal snacking, gathering in small groups of three or four to bounce into this corner or that for a stray French fry or the flakes of the passable pain au chocolat that I can never contain.

But I have seen a man towing a small rolling trunk as his luggage, strapped around with leather, clasped tight in brass. A woman does yoga–downward-facing dog to child’s pose–at our nearly-empty gate. All around this place, complete strangers catch bits of sleep. Where else do we act at such an apparent level of comfort in the presence of people we have never met?

We do it, to a certain extent, in places like this, in blogs and on the internet more generally, but there’s some sort of connection. In a blog post, we usually have a sense of who the audience is. A community rises up around such a thing, whether small or large. And information on the internet must still be sought out. In airports, we do not know who we’re looking at. We do not know their history unless it’s shared overtly, through dialog or through the trappings of their travel. (I like to try to piece together people’s travel stories by watching, by looking at bags and the places their snacks have come from, by their shoes and their hats and their glasses.) But there’s no way of confirming any of that. We can only see what we see–that these two business folk, with large rolling bags, have set themselves down beside the woman doing yoga, and now she is not doing it anymore. Now she has gotten up, gone off somewhere else. Is she discomfited by their presence? Is she off getting a coffee before the flight? This airport attendant, driving a cart, is singing an actual blues tune. This airport attendant, pushing an empty wheelchair, interrupts the song to borrow a radio.

We are so naked here, though we’re often wearing coats and scarves and another layer in case the plane is cold. We are unarmored, even though we are clad with bags and backpacks and rolling suitcases that prevent anyone from crowding too close.

It’s fascinating. I don’t know what Perec would think of this new system, the way we cannot wait with family and friends, that we cannot eat in this cafe because it is past security, that we cannot carry our own cafe au lait into this foreign space. But I think I can say, with a fair amount of certainty, that he would look for a way to live in it.

In honor of that, I’m going to go take a photo of that stegosaurus on the floor. I’d put it in this post, but the DIA wifi set-up will not allow me to add an image to this post for some reason I cannot even begin to fathom.

2 thoughts on “Feeling like Georges Perec

  1. I love that you think of Perec. Especially in airports.

    >>>Species of Spaces and Other Pieces is, for reasons that astound and befuddle me, one of the most important books that I've ever read.

    Yes. This. SoSaOP makes me think, excitedly, two seemingly incongruous things: “Imagine thinking this way!” and “Yes! This! I never knew anyone else had thought this!” Nothing else I have ever read has made me feel both astonished at new ways of thinking and delighted to recognize self in other.

    (Your link on Twitter goes to a Get Fuzzy strip from January.)


  2. @Laura,

    Thanks for the heads up on the link! Also, yes. Perec. “Delighted to recognize self in other” –> exactly. I should try reading Life: A User's Manual again, over the summer. I think I'd be more kind to it this time around.


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