Kevin Hyde reviews Georges Perec's The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise
Translated from the French by David Bellos (Verso, 2011)
The Art of Asking Your Boss for A Raise is an attempt at exhausting a loop of conditionals. It is a carefully controlled thought experiment. It is a sitcom that takes place over decades. It's a "Choose Your Own Adventure" story written by someone who loves modal logic, during which you make no choices of your own and none of your decisions would make a difference anyway. It is repetitive and original; pessimistic and funny; moving and absurd.
In his wonderful introduction, David Bellos, Perec's biographer and translator, reveals the back story for the book, the original title of which is the thoroughly marketing-unfriendly "The art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise". In 1968, Jacques Perriaud, a researcher at the Computing Service of the Humanities Research Centre in Paris, came up with the idea to challenge an artist to write within a constraint that approximated the limitations of a computer's operations, i.e. by following or imitating a series of algorithms. The algorithms for the scenario—seeking a raise from one's boss—were presented to Georges Perec as a flowchart. Perec made some edits to the chart (reproduced at the beginning and end of the book), went off, and produced fifty pages of uncapitalized, unpunctuated and unparagraphed text.
The original presentation of the text is retained by the David Bellos translation. In recreating the feel of a computer marching its way through the steps of an algorithm, Perec used repetition and recursion to shape the plot, and pattern and variation to give the story its style. The poor nameless supplicant, who, we gather, works at a humongous company, spends a lot of his time walking around the corridors of the office building, an act which is presented for the first time as: "the only course now available to you is to circumperambulate the various departments which taken together constitute the whole or part of the organization of which you are an employee," and which variously becomes, through its (at least) seventeen iterations:
organization which toys with you...of which you are an exploitee...of which you are obviously not the brightest star...which pays you a pittance while grinding away the best years of your life...that provides your meagre means of subsistence...that is your sole horizon...to which you owe everything...to which you feel proud to belong...where you eat your heart out...
The book does truly seem like it could be the product of a computer program: having been fed certain variables, it follows all possibilities to their logical end, and then starts again. The variations are combined and spun out into hilarious and emergent scenarios where, in one case, the protagonist takes the position vacated by the now-deceased department head (cause of death: expired eggs), or, in another, an outbreak of measles requires the forced 40-day quarantine of not only the department head, but two other entire departments and even the protagonist himself.
The distinct experience of reading The Art of... is derived from the dynamic that obtains between reader and text, during the actual physical act of scrolling one's eyeballs across words. With no indicated pauses, breaks, or emphases, readers are left to parse the sentences on their own. Speed characterizes the book―both in terms of the pace of reading and the way that time passes within the story.
The first go-round, you slip through the words, with the result that some go right by or get jumbled together, and you have to backtrack, rearranging, combining and uncoupling words, and then read the section all over again. This hurried way of reading has the effect of making the jokes hit that much harder when they do come, because they rise right up out of the torrent. I laughed out loud seven times while reading this book for the fifth time, and once, because I was laughing too hard, spilled coffee on someone.
Those moments of humor are the only true punctuation in the book, and they distract you from one of Perec's sneakier tricks: fast-forwarding through the protagonist's life in a way that's difficult to pick up on in the first or even the second reading, mostly because the movement is so subtle. At first, there's a mention of "yesteryear," then a teasing "eight and a half months later," (all the measles-related quarantines add up) and eventually, towards the end of the book, the surprising and heartbreaking "your 255th bid could it really be that after so many years devoted persistently to this sole project you are at long last nearing your goal," just before the protagonist finally makes his pitch "in clear and intelligible speech smiling through your tears restraining the emotions that well up from your heart".
The passage of time is the terrible secret of this book. You think you've just signed up for a breezy, funny piece of workplace drama―an especially ruminative episode of The Office―and you are instead faced with the grim fact that there is nothing more to the protagonist's life than this quest, which he will never complete. Only the ending, a few lines on the last page, offers some type of hope. What do you do when faced with certain futility and infinite frustration? You persevere, because there's really no other choice.