The title of Georges Perec's The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise—conveniently abbreviated as The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise—might suggest a work to be filed under “Self-Help.” (That Perec is also the author of something called Life: A User's Manual only furthers the first impression of an author-guru, an enthused giver of lifestyle commandments.) But, though Asking Your Boss for a Raise is prefaced with a handy flow chart, it is in fact a novel (just as long as the classification disregards the matter of its length, which is really quite short. Oh, and also any number of other conventions that mark a work as unmistakably a novel). Ostensibly structured around an employee of an unnamed corporation, the book considers a variety of possible outcomes of an attempt to request a long-overdue raise, related in the second person. Of course, given this painstaking consideration of grave consequences and inevitable disasters, the employee—“you”—never quite seems to manage to actually make the request.
Asking Your Boss for a Raise was conceived and executed as a computer program, the result, apparently, of a call by a French computer company, circa 1968, for artists interested in using mainframe machines in creative endeavors. Perec—then a newly minted member of Oulipo (a.k.a. Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or the Workshop for Potential Literature), a group of writers interested in constraints—was intrigued by the idea of a novel bound by a computer algorithm. Thus, Asking Your Boss for a Raise replicates, seemingly in real time, the process of making choices as performed by a computer. (Perec achieves this effect not only in the literal positing of “let us suppose…” situations, each hypothetical yielding a seemingly predetermined response, but also through a lack of punctuation and capitalization, suggesting computer code rather than belles-letres.)
This might well make the book sound too precious, too schematic, too unbearable. And it sort of is. Except that it's not. The process of reading Asking Your Boss for a Raise is not an especially pleasurable one, but it is also finally a terribly compelling work, one that does a great deal with very little. With his use of repetition, which also evokes a pre-set mechanism, Perec establishes a rhythm of sorts, while his subtle deviations from the pattern serve as moments of dark comedy. (One example: “the organisation of which you are an employee” transforms into “the organisation of which you are an exploitee,” producing both a knowing snicker and a thorough pathos.) As the employee/exploitee “circumperambulates” (in David Bellos's magnificently playful translation) his department, we come to understand his (our!) habits and routines, come to care about him, his palpable anxieties, his pettily profound predicament.
It's tempting too to read Asking Your Boss for a Raise as an allegory of a kind. For one thing, there is the year—1968—of that invitation by the computer company. The youthful, rebellious spirit lurks in the otherwise complacent prose; perhaps the project is a critique of capitalism, of bosses who slyly evade requests for better treatment, for less exploitation. What is the modern worker if not a machine, an efficient calculator operated by someone else? What is the daily life of a worker but the illusion of choices, all leading to the same meaningless end? And there too is the matter of Perec's history: born in 1936 to Jewish parents recently relocated to France from Poland, he survived WWII in the care of his paternal aunt, while his parents perished, his father at the front, his mother in Auschwitz. Perec's interest in constraint, particularly his use of lipograms—his 1969 novel La Disparition, usually rendered in English as A Void, entirely avoids the letter “e”—has suggested, to many critics, an ever-present, ever-pressing awareness of the Holocaust, a sense of loss that can only be mitigated by embracing the absence and making art out of it.
In Asking Your Boss for a Raise, Perec positively revels in the restrictions he sets for himself and invites the reader to do likewise. The marvel of the enterprise is that the result is no mere “exercise in style” (to invoke the title of Perec's Oulipo mentor Raymond Queneau's collection of 99 variations on the same story), but a real—and really beautiful—novel.
Georges Perec's The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise was released on March 14 by Verso. To purchase it, click here.