“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

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

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

Georges Perec’s 112-page novella, The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise, was originally published in an academic journal in France in 1969, but has just been released in English translation for the first time. It’s a wonderfully strange little book, and one that can’t be understood properly without a little bit of information on its provenance; as translator David Bellos explains in his introduction, a French computer company was searching for artists and writers interested in using computers to advance their artistic practice, and a then largely unknown writer named Georges Perec answered the call.
            Perec worked with a computer scientist named Jacques Perriuad, who had developed a flowchart (see image above) on how to ask your boss for a raise that mimicked the algorithmic functions of a computer program; Perec’s novella, then, is a fictional account of the flowchart, in which the protagonist of the book—addressed as ‘you’—is presented with a series of choices about how to approach your boss to ask for a raise. The result is this unusual prose experiment.
Those familiar with Perec’s work, however, won’t be surprised by its formal inventiveness. Perec was a member of the French group, Oulipo (short for Ouvroir de literature potentielle), an acronym that might be best translated into English as the ‘Workshop for Potential Literature’. Oulipo was famous for its use of formal conceits—the best know of which is the so-called ‘lipogram’, in which an author writes with the constraint of not using one letter of the alphabet. Perec, in fact, wrote what is almost certainly the most famous lipogram, called A Void, which is a book that does not contain the letter E.
            The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise is another such experiment, which was written as one continuous block of prose with no punctuation and no capital letters, and rigorously follows all of the steps one would have to go through to get a raise—which is sort of like the effect of writing a choose-your-own-adventure novel in which every possible outcome is simultaneously explored. Perec of course, raises this quest to the level of complete absurdity, as various events get in the way, such as your boss being unavailable as a result of having eaten rotten eggs, having swallowed a fishbone or having come down with a wildly infectious case of the measles that requires medical quarantine. The use of humour in the book stops the novella from simply becoming an exercise in pure formalism; the strange structure produces an unusual and striking new form of literature.
             Those with even a slight interest in experimental, mind-expanding literature will find much to love in The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise, which is a book that operates on principles wildly different from almost any other written work of literature (excepting perhaps Jorge Luis Borges’s famous, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’—a story about a book that very much resembles this novella), and is indubitably a minor classic written by one of the most important French authors of the last fifty years.


phill said...

That sounds amazing! Where might I order this from?

Emmett Stinson said...

I have a digital copy, but I wish I'd gotten the paper version of this one, which you can order from Readings here:

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