Sunday, May 8, 2011

'The organization of which you are an exploitee'

After reading a quite serious novel, which I will blog about soon but which was unsettling enough to first require some space, some head-clearing, I turned to and quickly devoured a wild little book of subversive mayhem: The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise by Georges Perec. Perec was a mid-20th-century French writer of experimental literature. I first heard of him a few years back when a new English edition of his book A Void was released. That one's an entire novel written without using the letter E. While something like that could easily be mere gimmickry, and while in my opinion there's nothing inherently interesting or meaningful politically about a project like that (unless there is of course, I mean unless the content takes on the class struggle in some way), still it piqued my interest and has been on my to-read list for a while. Because I do have a weakness for sly hilarity, and A Void sounds like that might be on offer.

Not having any academic or theoretical literary training, I know very little about experimental writing. I know it excites some folks, often younger folks who are fed up with conventional fiction, who seek work that breaks away from established standards and norms. I sympathize with that yearning. Yet I haven't read anything that convinces me that experimental fiction is by virtue of its formal departures revolutionary or contributes in any way to the revolutionary struggle. I have in fact read interesting counter-arguments, that such work is, thanks to its inaccessibility to most people, irrelevant at best and at worst just a less stodgy contribution to bourgeois culture. Myself, the few times I've dipped my toes in ex-lit waters, I found it arid or impenetrable or boring or irrelevant.
Not this time. I loved The Art of Asking Your Boss for a  Raise. I don't care at all about its genesis--experiments with computer programs, as outlined in the translator's introduction--in fact, I wish I hadn't read the introduction, for I'd never have imagined any remotely mechanistic origin for this witty gritty little spew of a book. No matter, for however the idea evolved the story's crazily revolving locutions could only have been cooked up in the labyrinth of Perec's evidently wonderfully skewed, demented mind. And it is a story. A story about an office worker trying to ask his boss for a raise. Told without sentence or paragraph breaks, without punctuation or capital letters. Without pause or breath. A breathless endless and endlessly futile quest as the worker in his heart of heart well knows, telling himself at one point
do not lose heart after all you make a decent living do you really need a raise if you cut out the unnecessaries heating clothing transport if you have lunch in the canteen every day and dine on boiled lettuce you should be able to make both ends meet in any case it's a well known fact that boiled lettuce sharpens the mind
Lots of commentary about work and big business sneaks into what at first glance might seem like an impossibly repetitive, minute, circular narrative about a guy going to his boss's office to ask for a raise, along with lots of comic detail about fish bones and bad eggs and measles and circumperambulation. So yes, there is social satire built in, yes the sum of this small gem is more than its kooky parts. And yes, I thoroughly enjoyed whizzing along on the ride. Fun! Everyone deserves some!