'The Art' of Puzzling, Fascinating Corporate Satire

'The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise' by Georges Perec (Verso, $16.95)

Elusive French writer Georges Perec may have died in 1982, but thanks to the recent reissue of an oft-forgotten literary experiment from his later years, his humor and his cunning live again. Published in book form for the first time and translated into English by Perec’s biographer, Princeton’s David Bellos, Perec’s delightfully odd “The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise” paints a playful portrait of the neurotic corporate mind as it attempts to construct a logical template for financial success and—in a more abstract sense—human recognition.

Originally published in 1968 in the French journal “Enseignement programmé”—and subsequently adapted into a later chapter of what is perhaps Perec’s masterpiece, “Life: A User’s Manual”—“Asking Your Boss” will interest any reader who has ever worked in a large bureaucracy and considered himself underpaid.

With Perec’s signature irony, the deep philosophical questions this little small book poses have little to do with the often overwrought themes of anonymity or alienation that others have emphasized in their own depictions of corporate culture. Indeed, for Perec, those questions are merely as follows: what day would be best for me to see my boss? What do I do if he doesn’t ask me to sit down when I come in? Should I or should I not attempt the personal angle by asking some half-baked questions about his daughter?

On that superficial level, at least, “Asking Your Boss”—just 80 short pages from start to finish—will tease as much as it entertains. But due to the book’s brevity, its subject, and its cheekiness, it might be too easy to read the latest iteration of the great Georges Perec simply as a mischievous indictment of the corporate mind and the culture that has spawned it. Although “Asking Your Boss” is certainly such an indictment on a superficial level, its real value comes not from its subject but rather from the mode in which that indictment is expressed.

Without any capitalization or punctuation, “Asking Your Boss” might seem at first like an 80-page run-on sentence, especially given that, in large part, the text—which amasses thought after thought after thought without any pause or break—requires a fair amount of concentration to decipher. But this, in a sense, is precisely the significance of Perec’s project in “Asking Your Boss,” and the book must be understood and celebrated as a rare literary artifact of the Oulipo movement, which was just establishing itself in the 1960s. Ouvroir de littérature potentielle—“Workshop for Potential Literature” in English and “Oulipo” for short—was founded by novelist Raymond Queneau and and mathematician François Le Lionnais in 1960. The attempt by several European writers and mathematicians, mostly French, to gauge the implementation of mathematics in literature created a new form of expression, informed by logical process and quantitative patterns. In the words of Bellos, Oulipo “sought to invent new kinds of rules for literary composition, and also to explore the use of now-forgotten forms in the literatures of the past.”

In the works of the Oulipo writers, these “new kinds of rules for literary composition” often included devices such as the palindrome; the “S+7,” a construction in which every noun in a given text is replaced by the noun seven entries below it in the dictionary; and the lipogram, a word game in which long passages are written without a particular letter. Among his other accomplishments, Perec is said to have immortalized the lipogram throughout the course of his work.

It makes sense that Georges Perec—born in Paris in 1936 and coming of age around the time when Queneau and Le Lionnais were experimenting with mathematical literature—would take so well to Oulipo. By the mid-1960s, Queneau had already written “A Story As You Like It,” a narrative experiment in which the reader is presented with a sentence and then prompted to choose one of two responses that dictates the length and content of the story he or she ultimately receives. The result is a construction that contains within itself the permutations for a multiplicity of narrative threads.

According to Bellos’s account of Perec during these years, the writer was intrigued by the idea of creating a story that generated itself from a body set of programmed choices that occurred at what might be called “plot points.” And we see that interest throughout the brief duration of “Asking Your Boss,” which, as Bellos has noted, mimics the “progress of an imaginary computer-mind as it iterates a set of choices in pseudo-real time.” Hence the lack of punctuation and capitalization: the text is a deliberate attempt to imitate the linear jumble and logical string of corporate thought, rendered here in the language of a computer.

Take, for instance, the first few lines of the book: “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…”

The idea of weighing the “pros and cons,” the phrase “let us assume,” and assigning a variable name to the unknown “mr x”—these are immediate signals that Perec’s imaginary employee approaches his dilemma just as any functioning computer would. Indeed, he identifies his problem, isolates his variable, and, from there, determines the proper course of action as dictated by logical progression.

What is perhaps most intriguing about Perec’s experiment in “Asking Your Boss,” however, is the way in which he uses his form and his content as a means of commenting on the very bizarre relationship the two share in his text. In fact, a strange effect of reading this difficult and witty exercise is that the reader is teased into believing that there is hardly a distinction between the one and the other. For Perec, it seems, content is form, and form is content. On the one hand, “Asking Your Boss” is ostensibly ‘about’ the neuroses of the corporate mind. But on the other, what matters about that mind the most is the transcript of its thought processes, the roadmap of its progress from cubicle to boss’s office to cubicle. In a sense, the mind is its paper trail, an idea that gets at the heart of the Oulipo ideology.

As a witty indictment of corporate culture and an artifact from one of the 20th century’s most bizarre literary movements, “Asking Your Boss”—as with all the works of Georges Perec—is a puzzle too absurd not to explore.

—Staff writer James K. McAuley can be reached at mcauley@fas.harvard.edu.

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