Georges Perec’s Things: A Story of the 2020s?

Perec’s now classic novel brilliantly shows the basic structure of late stage capitalist society remains unchanged today

Photo: Jean-Claude Deutsch/Paris Match

French writer Georges Perec once declared during an interview that his famous novel Things: A Story of the Sixties (French: Les Choses: Une histoire des années soixantes) should not simply be understood as a critique of consumerism. Going beyond that essential notion while reading the novel, however, is a difficult task simply on account of its straight-forward plot. A closer look at the now canonical Perec text reveals that our struggle sadly does not end with a refusal to participate in late stage capitalism. Is that even an option? Was it in the 1960s, when the book was written? Is it now? Things is interested in exploring that question.

Things narrates the story of a Parisian couple, Jérôme and Sylvie, who have a comfortable bobo* lifestyle (bobo is a term referring to the bourgeois-bohemians of the large French cities: people with white-collar jobs and progressive politics and tastes) working as surveyors in the booming field of marketing. In spite of their enviable life in one of the world’s most exciting cities, Jérôme and Sylvie find themselves frequently dreaming of possessing more things; not useful things, but rather things that help them climb the social ladder and display their refined taste and their indisputable belonging to the French upper class, such as fancy furniture, trendy English clothes and luxury accessories. Indeed, much of the novel consists of contrasting how what Jérôme and Sylvie currently have does not match what they wish to have, leading to growing discontent and anxiety. In an effort to flee this creeping misery, they move to Sfax, a mid-sized city in Tunisia that with its dusty streets and arid weather is radically different from the French capital. The landscape change doesn’t quite ameliorate their need for more material objects, and they are soon forced to leave Sfax and return to France as they realize they are completely isolated from both the expatriate bubble and Arabic-speaking Tunisians. After a short stay in Paris, they agree to relocate to Bordeaux, where well-paid positions in their field await them; with these positions, however, comes also the need to settle down and accept their stagnant place within the French middle-class. Such a life implies that the spontaneous soirées with their childless friends and their dreams of acquiring immeasurable wealth must be left behind. Is that a bad thing? The novel’s somber epilogue seems to hint that it is, but why?

The first explanation I can think of is that it is simply tragic when people give up on their dreams. However, Jérôme and Sylvie’s dreams were on shaky grounds to begin with: they wanted to become richer to acquire social approval, but what was the end goal? Would there truly be an end to their quest for wealth? And if there would be, how would that end feel? Satisfying? Their current acquisition of more and more things only brought immediate satisfaction that faded away as quickly as it came. One can only assume that the same phenomenon would occur had they been rich, except it would take place on a greater scale. Although Perec warns against reducing his novel to an existential rejection of seeking comfort in owning things, it is hard to argue that Jérôme and Sylvie’s trajectory effectively proves that that’s not the key to life on Earth.

The Tunisian section of the novel, however, complicates this conclusion. In Sfax Jérôme and Sylvie partially escaped from their commodity-based life. As a developing postcolonial country, Tunisia could simply not offer the young couple the same standard of living as France. But what it could offer — extraordinary views of desert landscapes and a rich foreign culture for them to explore — did not appeal to them either. In fact, their fondest memory of Tunisia was a brief visit to a lavish mansion in the Mediterranean coast owned by a British couple. Even in a developing country they longed for impressing others with their wealth. In the end, they quickly grew dissatisfied with their adoptive country and came back to a challenging but much more familiar lifestyle in France. The implication is that although a consumerist society is that frequently spiritually and physically tough, there is no way to escape it. Jérôme and Sylvie hopefully will learn to make peace with it.

Some editions of Things still contain the subtitle A Story of the Sixties. It is undoubtedly an artwork that dialogues with other media of the time preoccupied with consumer society (for example, Andy Warhol’s pop art). It is also a story that does not sound too foreign for readers in the 21st century. While browsing their story, I could not avoid of thinking of Jérôme and Sylvie as a millennial couple sharing an apartment in a large city and resisting to settle down too. Although your average millennial couple does not have it as easy as Jérôme and Sylvie in the financial front (unemployment continues to plague most countries on Earth and inflation is a persistent issue in several societies), some of the existential questions in Things remain because the basic structure of society has not radically changed. Neoliberalism and globalization have in fact accelerated to the point that an escape to Tunisia for a simpler life might be futile; the line between the developing and developed world is fading — and with this comes a degree of cultural homogenization and almost universal access to goods and services that makes it harder for people to truly experience radical culture shocks. The 9-to-5 life is draining and soul-sucking in Paris or Sfax, in New York City or in Buenos Aires, in Lagos or in Melbourne.

What can we do, then, if we strongly desire to reject the spiritual dryness of late stage capitalism? The response might be highly individualized and might necessitate introspection and creativity, but pessimism isn’t unwarranted. The world Perec sketched on Things has managed to survive and continue to expand six decades later. Theorizing change continues as well.

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