Georges Perec’s “The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise” is a tiny book whose endpapers feature a busy flow-chart that diagrams a slew of Yes/No events — obstacles that cleave and re-cleave the path leading to the elusive goal of winning a salary hike. The book’s publisher, Verso, has posted online an animated, interactive version of the flow chart, here. It is well worth a test drive.
The chart’s multiplying pathways, pursued seriatim by a minor functionary in a large corporation, are the basis for the plot of Perec’s inventive, comic, and a bit daunting, novella, written in 1968. The story is told in the second person singular voice (“you”) and, yes, “you” are an employee at “one of the biggest firms in one of the key sectors of the nation’s most national industries.” It is a corporation “which pays you a pittance while grinding away the best years of your life.” All you seek is a meeting with your enigmatic line supervisor who, you fear, has a “disinclination to listen to your squalid concerns over pay”. In 15,000 words on 78 pages, author Perec, and his fine translator David Bellos (who also provides a helpful Introduction), follow you from the start of your campaign all the way through to “your two hundred and fifty-fifth bid” for a raise. The prohibition on spoilers prevents my revealing more, other than to say the finale differs from that of another iteration of the story, found in chapter ninety-eight of Perec’s magnum opus, “Life: A User’s Manual” (1978).
Be forewarned, however, that Perec poses challenges to the general reader’s ready acceptance of his game plan. The book qualifies as a piece of experimental writing, and it is demanding of the reader. The primary challenge is Perec’s decision to dispense with punctuation. He uses no commas, no question marks, no quotation marks to indicate dialog, no capitalization, and no periods (until the final page). Essentially, the reader must be prepared to launch into a very long, run-on sentence, and then hold on tight. Only after you are acclimated to the author’s experimental style do you begin to notice subtle shifts in attitude, slyly humorous touches, and some serious philosophical implications.
What, then, is it like to read a novel that’s based on a flow chart, a story delivered in prose that matches the book’s hermetic character and its recursive rhythm? I’ve never encountered anything else like this in literature. The referents that came to my mind belong, instead, to myth, philosophy, the movies, and music. There’s Sisyphus’s legacy of repeated, forced returns to square one (the “recursion” part of the flow chart). There’s Zeno’s paradox of never reaching a goal because of endless intermediate steps. There’s a “Groundhog Day”-like enslavement by time’s tedium, that can be overcome, if at all, only through persistence and luck. And, even closer in feel, there is the experimental minimalist music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, among others. I am thinking of what composer and writer Tom Johnson described as music that moves in endless circles (in the novella, the made-up word “circumperambulate” appears two dozen times); and pieces that take a very long time to move from one kind of music to another (it is such a relief when, after what seems an eternity, you finally enter your boss’s office for the first time).
“The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise” is a short book with a high threshold of entry, but once inside, the reader’s diligence is likely to pay off handsomely.
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A version of this review is posted on Amazon, here.