AUGUST 31, 2011
RATHER THAN AN INSTRUCTIONAL GUIDE for the bewildered employee, Georges Perec’s The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise is a map down a rabbit hole. It stages the obsessive shoe-shuffling that can ensue when posing a delicate question:
He knows why you’re standing in front of him biting your nails pathologically stumbling over your words you know that he knows that you know and he knows you know that he knew that you saw that he would know that you were about to know in other words you have the actually quite accurate impression that it would be tricky clumsy dangerous to launch into the issue just like that you need a pretext.
The Art of Asking is essentially the monologue of a hyper-functioning corporate employee. It is a book to be read in one sitting and preferably out loud. (It has, in fact, been adapted for radio and stage, and is being performed in Avignon this summer.)
Paradoxically, this brief novel at once boasts a complete lack of plot and a surfeit of it, as the employee works and worries at a million meaningless tasks and considerations; the office worker’s culling of potential outcomes becomes a comic exploration of minutia. At first glance the whole book seems to be one tremendously long sentence, missing both conventional punctuation and capitalization: envision an early computer printout. Each word takes on the same typographical emphasis as its neighbors. But the reader quickly sees that the intonation of the sentences, as well as their beginning and end points, are actually unambiguous. Perec’s book demonstrates that the reader knows quite well how to parse text — even without the usual mile markings — although the way to requesting a raise may not yet be clear. The reader’s own processing of language thus becomes a second plot.
The Art of Asking wears its organizing principle on its flyleaf, which features a flowchart of raise-requesting variables. Written in the late sixties when computers were still young and large, the book’s humor remains incisive in our age of lightweight gadgets. The novel was prompted by a request from Jacques Perriaud, a member of the Computing Service of the Humanities Research Centre in Paris, who asked Perec to contribute a creative, computer-based text to the journal Programmed Learning in 1968. Perriaud supplied an algorithm of the steps an employee might follow to ask for a raise, which Perec adapted. The resulting text is a fugue that combines a “Choose Your Own Adventure” format with the linguistic playfulness of Joyce, Beckett, or Stein. It takes on the binary thinking as well as the linguistic encrustations of corporate structures: even your boss’s boss has trouble approaching “the assistant deputy deputy deputy director.”
At the time of the book’s composition, Perec was best known for his incisive, sociological critique of bourgeois French life in Things. More experimental works such as Life: A User’s Manual, a 700-page book structured according to a chess problem called the knight’s tour, and his gargantuan lipogrammatic feat A Void, written entirely without the letter “e” (the most common vowel in both French and English), would soon follow. The Art of Asking was written in 1968 shortly after Perec was “co-opted” into the Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), a group of writers and mathematicians that, with a mischievousness that owes a debt to Jarry and Roussel, strives to invent new structures for composing literature. Founded in 1960 by Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais, the group eventually expanded to include Italo Calvino, Marcel Duchamp, Harry Mathews, and Jacques Roubaud; it is now the longest-running French literary movement.
Like its Oulipian predecessor, Raymond Queneau’s “Un Conte à votre façon” (A Story as You Like It), The Art of Asking follows an arborescent structure with a limited series of possibilities. But unlike Queneau’s proto-hypertextual work, Perec leaves the mechanized office worker — or the reader — few actual choices. You do not actually make selections, but rather witness the consequences of each tiny yes-or-no decision. (Verso has published an abbreviated version online that allows you to click through choices and, with luck, avoid the wastepaper basket icon into which your boss may toss your request.)
Many Perecian texts court inventory, such as An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, teetering between obsessive cataloging and luminous detail. Perec once said that he strove to write every kind of literature possible, without retracing his steps, aiming toward or working in an apotheosis of literary comprehensiveness. The Art of Asking furnishes another way of approaching infinity. It loops like a computer returning to zero, coming full circle with the book’s close, which sets “you” right back where you started: “wait for six months then when six months later your hopes have been fully dashed go back to see mr x if he is there if he raises his eyes when you knock if he asks you in straight off if he asks you to be seated and agrees to hear you out try to persuade him just one more time.” In essence, the book plays out Calvino’s idea that “literature itself is merely the permutation of a finite set of elements and functions.”
Recursion is certainly the central metaphor for the text’s operation, for corporate organization, and ultimately, human activity. But we quickly see that precise repetition does not occur; rather, variation emerges, creating comedy. Just as the text dips into monotony, a refrain arrives — one that you recognize from earlier in the text — and its diction spurs a guffaw. Thus the phrase “asking your boss for a raise” becomes “drop a few hints about a hypothetical upward adjustment of your pecuniary emoluments.” You begin to realize that the text is teaching you as you read: your memory of the refrains allows you to appreciate the text’s parody. You are being inducted into the system.
The book’s hilarity arises from the accumulation of phrases such as the frequent tongue-in-cheek exhortation to “keep things simple — for we must do our best to keep things simple.” These expressions are constantly transformed, so that the previous sentence becomes the verbose “we really do want to keep our demonstration as short as possible and not burden it with matters that would in the end be considered otiose.” Many such refrains mock polite euphemism and business doublespeak. Thus the recurrent set of excuses for leaving a meeting (“I have to pop out to feed the parking meter or I’m afraid I swallowed a fish bone at lunch or excuse me but I must go and have a vaccination against measles”) becomes “shit my meter or ouch a fish bone or again those eggs at lunch.”
Interestingly, L’Art et la manière d’aborder son chef de service pour lui demander une augmentation is translated for British readers as The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise, which is less pithy than the American version, but closer to the French. This shortening of the American title, which must be the publisher’s decision, seems an inadvertent mimicking of the very procedure that the book is parodying. David Bellos’s lively translation, as idiomatically supple as his previous renditions of Perec, gives us wonderful terms such as the neologism “circumperambulate” (which Bellos credits to his Latin teacher) for “faire le tour”; the idiosyncratic yet tonally spot-on “oy vey” for “ah la la”; and “harrumph harrumph harrumph” for “mézalor mézalor” (mais alors, mais alors).
It is a boon to be able to read Perec’s book in English alongside contemporary conceptual literature by Craig Dworkin, Joshua Cohen, Kenneth Goldsmith, or Timothy Donnelly, all of whom experiment with banal language. The Art of Asking is a droll example of Perec’s interest in what he later called the “infraordinary” — the commonplaces of language and the quotidian: “In our haste to measure the historic, significant and revelatory, let’s not leave aside the essential: the truly intolerable, the truly inadmissible. What is scandalous isn’t the pit explosion, it’s working in coalmines.”