Saturday, March 10, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #69: The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise by Georges Perec

Books can be based on anything: a random thought, a meme, a movie, a video game, a common saying, some old story the author wants to fix. But this is the only book I know based on a chart.

Georges Perec was a French writer of the mid-twentieth century, connected with the Oulipo group and deeply interested in making fiction based on arbitrary rules and other restrictions. He's probably best known on my side of the Atlantic for A Void, a novel that doesn't use the letter E. (He seems to be best-known in general for Life: A User's Manual.)

The cover proclaims this small book to be The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise, but it actually has a much longer title inside, translated faithfully from the French equivalent: The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise. And that longer title contains the bones of this novella-length work in embryo: this is a book of particulars, of roadblocks, of options, of a nearly choose-your-own-adventure style of choices and of being driven down those choices one by one in turn, with no real choice.

The endpapers contain the chart that this book was based on -- though, oddly, the two seem to have been translated by different people, so we have "engineer" one place and "professor" the other. (David Bellos translated the book, and also provided a helpful introduction. He may have also translated the chart, and used different terms for some unknown reason.) It's a flow-chart, assuming you are a man in some middle-rank position in some random French company in the mid-60s, seeking to buttonhole your boss to ask for a raise. There are, as there must be, various reasons why doing so is not possible or advisable at any given moment -- the boss's daughters have measles, or he has a fishbone from lunch in his stomach, or he doesn't look up when you knock, or he's simply not there at all, among several others -- and, if those are the case on any cycle around the chart, you must start again at the beginning.

The chart itself was created (likely in a somewhat simpler and less silly form) by a French computer scientist, Jacques Perriaud, who then apparently set out to find a novelist who would follow it "as a computer would" and turn it into fiction. That is perhaps even more bizarre than the fact that Perec actually did so. The resulting work is written as if one long run-on sentence (though a careful reader can see where periods and other punctuation would be) and cycles through all of the options on that chart, some of them repeatedly on every cycle, until finally, after eighty pages, getting in front of that boss, finding him in a receptive mood, making the case for a raise, and getting a generally favorable response.

This is obviously a literary stunt, and anyone's interest in it will be entirely based on how much she likes literary stunts. I found it short enough not to wear out its welcome, and weird enough to be fun -- particularly since the 50 years and an ocean between Perec's working world and mine have changed many aspects of office life. It is definitely one of the quirkiest books I've read, and I treasure it for that.

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