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from the May 2011 issue

Georges Perec’s “The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise

Reviewed by Laird Hunt

The English-language Perec enjoys a certain sartorial charm—an ink-and-paper analog of the author’s legendary formal brio.

“a raise raises very complex issues”

Georges Perec’s books in English are always the best looking. Whether in the crisply elegant Verba Mundi editions housing his best-known titles (Life: A User’s Manual; Things; W, or the Memory of a Childhood; A Void, etc.), the sharp, Perec-photo-sporting Penguin Classics Species of Spaces, or the stylish recently issued An Attempt at Exhausting a Place from Wakefield Press, the English-language Perec enjoys a certain sartorial charm—an ink-and-paper analog of the author’s legendary formal brio. It’s a pleasure then to report that Verso’s The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise, a slight volume with cover art inspired by the flow chart the text is based on, is every bit as handsome as its predecessors.

Handsome presentation isn’t the only good news here. If The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise isn’t likely to engender a significant reenvisioning of the Perec archipelago, it at least adds an outlying island of genuine interest. The governing premise was put to Perec by Jacques Perriaud at the Computing Service of the Humanities Research Center in Paris in the late 1960s: compose a piece based on the program-planning methods of the day. Perriaud handed Perec a flowchart that sketched out the path an employee in a large organization would follow in order to get a raise. Perec took this flowchart, adjusted it slightly and used it as the matrix for the present text.

The text posits the following: an unnamed employee (whom Perec addresses outright as “you”) tries to get his boss (mr x), to give him a raise. His, or your, boss is not in, or doesn’t acknowledge him (again, you), or says no, not now. Each time you set out on your mission to persuade him otherwise, some circumstance intervenes, and these constant impediments send you off to circumperambulate the building’s various departments before ending up back at your starting point. Along the way you suffer through unpredictable cafeteria offerings, threats of measles, chats with your dreaded colleague Ms. Wye, quarrels with an engineer who also works in the firm. The months and years go by. They do so, by Perec’s design, without the benefit of punctuation (beyond the apostrophe or occasional dash, uppercase letters, or meaningful blank spaces in the text.

Having carefully weighed the pros and cons you gird up your loins and make up your mind to go and see your head of department to ask for a raise so you go to see your head of department let us assume to keep things simple—for we must do our best to keep things simple—that his name is mr xavier that’s to say mister or rather mr x so you go to see mr x it’s one or t’other . . .

That closing “one or t’other” is one of the many elements that recur regularly throughout the text, which becomes, by turns, a quirky, funny, tender, boring, obsessive exploration of office space; a kind of endlessly subsected series of points A and B, “the truth lying somewhere between the two.” Our hero’s quest then is one that many of us will recognize: how to add meaning, whether borrowed or invented, to the flowchart of being alive.

Martin Riker, editor at Dalkey Archive press, once crossed paths with David Bellos, and told him that Perec was his favorite writer. After pausing a moment, Riker remarked that, because he had read Perec exclusively in English, it was Bellos, in fact, who was his favorite writer. Bellos’s achievement in brilliantly translating the lion’s share of a body of work as vast and varied as Perec’s cannot be overstated, and he more than lives up to his own high standard here. His rendering is as sharp and flat and relentless as the original. The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise is as odd and interesting in English as it is in French.

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