The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise

The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise

Text by Georges Perec

adapted to the stage by Yosi Wanunu

The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise is a hilarious account of an employee losing his identity, and possibly his/her sanity, as he/she tries to put on the most acceptable face for the corporate world, with its rigid hierarchies and hostility to new ideas. If he/she follows a certain course of action, so this logic goes, he/she will succeed, but, in accepting these conditions, are his/her attempts to challenge his/her world of work doomed from the outset?

The Art of Asking Your Boss for A Raise is an attempt at exhausting a loop of conditionals. It is a carefully controlled thought experiment. It is a sitcom that takes place over decades. It’s a “Choose Your Own Adventure” story written by someone who loves modal logic, during which you make no choices of your own and none of your decisions would make a difference anyway.

In his wonderful introduction, David Bellos, Perec’s biographer, and translator reveal the back story for the book, the original title of which is the thoroughly marketing-unfriendly “The art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise”. In 1968, Jacques Perriaud, a researcher at the Computing Service of the Humanities Research Centre in Paris, came up with the idea to challenge an artist to write within a constraint that approximated the limitations of a computer’s operations, i.e., by following or imitating a series of algorithms. The algorithms for the scenario, seeking a raise from one’s boss, were presented to Georges Perec as a flowchart. Perec made some edits to the chart, went off, and produced fifty pages of uncapitalized, unpunctuated and unparagraphed text.

In recreating the feel of a computer marching its way through the steps of an algorithm, Perec used repetition and recursion to shape the plot, and pattern and variation to give the story its style. The poor nameless supplicant, who, we gather, works at a humongous company, spends a lot of his/her time walking around the corridors of the office building, an act which is presented for the first time as: “the only course now available to you is to circumperambulate the various departments which taken together constitute the whole or part of the organization of which you are an employee,” and which variously becomes, through its (at least) seventeen iterations:

  1. An organization which toys with you…
  2. Of which you are an exploitee…
  3. Of which you are obviously not the brightest star…
  4. Which pays you a pittance while grinding away the best years of your life…
  5. That provides your meager means of subsistence…
  6. That is your sole horizon…
  7. To which you owe everything…
  8. To which you feel proud to belong…
  9. Where you eat your heart out…

The book does truly seem like it could be the product of a computer program: having been fed certain variables, it follows all possibilities to their logical end, and then starts again. The variations are combined and spun out into hilarious and emergent scenarios where, in one case, the protagonist takes the position vacated by the now-deceased department head (cause of death: expired eggs), or, in another, an outbreak of measles requires the forced 40-day quarantine of not only the department head but two other entire departments and even the protagonist himself.

The passage of time is the terrible secret of this book. You think you’ve just signed up for a breezy, funny piece of workplace drama, an especially ruminative episode of the TV show The Office, and you are instead faced with the grim fact that there is nothing more to the protagonist’s life than this quest, which he will never complete. Only the ending, a few lines on the last page, offer some type of hope. What do you do when faced with certain futility and infinite frustration? You persevere because there’s really no other choice.

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