The Year of Reading Dangerously – Georges Perec
No year of exploring the experimental novel would be complete without at least one work by Georges Perec. Perec was one of the leading exponents of Ouilpo, a group of writers whose works were created on the basis of rules. Presumably this was partly for the challenge, partly for the creativity stimulated by the restrictions imposed, and partly to emphasise the rules already in place in all writing. The most famous example is probably Perec’s own novel A Void, written entirely without the letter e (and, quite incredibly, translated into English by David Bellos). His masterpiece, Life A User’s Manual, is also written according to a series of rules, and it was that I intended to read again – that is, until I was pleased to see that Vintage had published a translation into English of The art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise (again by David Bellos) under its classic imprint.
The art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise is clearly one of Perec’s minor works, both in terms of its length (under a hundred pages) and its place in his oeuvre. It was written in 1968, only three years after his first novel, Things: A Story of the Sixties, and ten years before Life A User’s Manual. According to Bellos’ excellent introduction, it was written after a French computer company set the challenge to write like a computer, and is based on a flow chart which is reproduced at the beginning of the book. As each stage in the story has a yes / no option, Perec could have written in a format that still appears among children’s novels, where each choice takes you to a different page; instead he chose to write without punctuation or capitals, mimicking the processes of a computer program as it happens. A single example should illustrate the style:
“…if he has not heard your knocking it would be quite inappropriate and even unseemly to persist so if he does not raise his eyes you go back to your desk and decide to try your luck afresh in the afternoon or tomorrow or next tuesday or forty days later obviously when you do go back he will have to be in his office if he is not then you would await his return in the corridor and if he were to be a long time coming you would go see ms wye…”
Rather than empowering the reader to make choices, Perec adopts a style that makes choices themselves seem unimportant, each one treated equally and unemotionally. It also becomes deeply repetitive on every level: word, phrase, connective. In this way Perec creates, whether intentionally or not, a critique of the workplace, which appears as a soulless labyrinth where employees are subject to the whims of chance – for example, whether your boss swallows a fish bone at lunch or one of his daughters has measles.
Bellos twice describes The art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise as unreadable in his introduction, but I found its repetitive nature leavened by a lot of humour. Clearly, it is best read in one sitting, something that does not take long, as it does not lend itself to the bookmark. A fascinating curio.
Danger rating: repetitive nature, much like a roundabout, may cause dizziness. Vintage have also reprinted a number of Perec’s other books, and it would be safe to say that it would be best to leave this one to last.