French writer Georges Perec, best known for his 1978 novel Life, A User’s Manual, coined the term infra-ordinary to describe the opposite of the ‘extraordinary’ events and objects and communications that dominate our mental lives.
Perec’s obsession with the infra-ordinary was in part ideological – it critiqued the media of his time. ‘What speaks to us, seemingly, is always the big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary: the front-page splash, the banner headlines’, he wrote in 1973. One can only imagine what Perec would make of the twenty-first-century ‘news’ cycle.
‘The daily papers talk of everything except the daily’, he complained. ‘What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it?’ That’s his deeper question: What about everything else?
Perec’s boldest attempt to try to pay the infra-ordinary its due attention took the form of a slender, lovely book called An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, published in 1975. To write it, he planted himself for the better part of three days on a particular Parisian plaza – disregarding the spectacular architecture and instead noting everything that came into his fi eld of vision. His list – a postal van, a child with a dog, a woman with a newspaper, a man with a large A on his sweater – became poetry of the everyday.
I think about Perec’s work most often in one of my least-favourite places: the airport. If I’m stuck in a long security line, I try to channel him and make a mental catalogue of the details and absurdities around me. (Instead of disregarding, say, a guy in a T-shirt that reads ‘Old School’, I ruminate on it.) This helps pass the time.
Taking notes would sharpen one’s focus. And I wish some brilliant and diligent observer would try to match Perec, but in the setting of a modern airport. I have spent many hours waiting out flight delays in Atlanta and I cannot think of a more daring literary experiment than An Attempt to Exhaust Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.