Apr/May 2011

The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise

Perec's office novel takes fluorescent-lit anomie and shoots it through a complex if-then calculus, sending a hapless hero through a workplace maze where he must repeatedly avoid sour coworkers and steel his resolve to ask for more money.

Rob Spillman


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Georges Perec, who died in 1982 at the age of forty-five, was far, far ahead of his time. One of the core members of Oulipo, the international group of writers who use mathematical constraints as jumping-off points for their fictions, Perec penned a mystery novel that avoids all words containing the letter e. (Just as spectacularly, this novel, La Disparition, was translated into English as A Void, following the same no-e constraint.) His novel Life: A User's Manual, which uses a chess game to structure its story about residents in a busy Parisian apartment building, also deserves its place in the modern pantheon.

Until now, Perec's short office novel The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise has not been translated into English. Perec biographer David Bellos has finally undertaken the daunting task, a seventy-seven-page-long single sentence with almost no punctuation. The Oulipan challenge for the book was thrown down by computer pioneer Jacques Perriaud in 1968 at the Orwellian-sounding Computing Service of the Humanities Research Centre in Paris. Perriaud drew up a flowchart representing how a supercomputer would break down the various ways a nervous low-level office worker might set out to ask his superior for a raise, complete with loops, digressions, and recursions. Perec threw himself at the task and created a hilarious, increasingly frenzied office parody:

. . . let's suppose for starters that ms wye is not i mean really not in a good mood in this case you don't let it get you down and circumperambulate the various departments which taken together constitute the whole or part of the organization of which you are an employee then go back to see mr x hoping he has come in it's one or tother either mr x is at his desk or mr x is not at his desk are you at your desk no so why expect mr x to be at his maybe he is at your desk expecting to give you a drubbing when you get back or maybe he is walking up and down in the corridor outside his boss's office . . .

This quasi-scientific mania reads a bit like Beckett or Ionesco on Four Loko. Not surprisingly, The Art and Craft was turned into an agit-prop theater piece that continues to be staged in Europe.

Perec, who worked for seventeen years as an archivist at a neurophysiological research lab, takes fluorescent-lit anomie and class striving and puts them through the if-then calculus of Basic-era computer programming, sending the hapless hero through an office maze where he must repeatedly avoid sour coworkers and steel his resolve for raise-asking in the face of a multiplicity of negative possibilities, including inexplicable mood swings and unpredictable lunches. The resulting satire of white-collar debasement is of a piece with Ed Park's Personal Days and Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End. Perec's innovative performance, thanks in part to Bellos's playful and knowing translation, feels remarkably current, a disorienting tour that captures the neuroses and absurdities of office life.

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