Binary Banter: The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise, Perec-style

Photo by Ryan McGuire

I read both French and English, but I’m not sure how my binary is.

Normally, when it comes to French texts I’m curious about, I grab either the original or the English translation, depending on what’s most readily available. If it’s the translation, I nurse the intention of reading the original French and comparing the two, but I don’t fuss too much over which I read first or the quality of the translation, not unless it’s very dated.

I enjoy reading translator’s notes, and I feel assured that if I like a text enough, I’ll have plenty of time to explore whatever other incarnations of it exist.

I have to admit, though, that the David Bellos translation of Georges Perec’s L’art et la manière d’aborder son chef de service pour lui demander une augmentation was causing me to wonder about my ability to suspend judgment before I even started the book, despite my enjoyment of other works by the Oulipo writer—namely Un homme qui dort and Marc Lowenthal’s translation An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris.

Bellos literally says in his introduction that the text is “almost unreadable.” Yes, that is the translator’s actual opinion, though perhaps there’s more than a pinch of humor in the mix. He later refers to the translation as “a paradoxical but not a particularly difficult task, since ordinary readability is hardly an issue.”

As Bellos explains, the book was written as an experiment designed to see whether Perec could produce a work of art using “a computer’s basic mode of operation,” which as far as I can tell, having now read it, essentially means binary. I should probably also take a moment here to explain that while it is packaged as a book, The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise is barely a novella by modern-day, English-language literary standards.

A yes/no flowchart at the start maps the possibilities of how an employee might go about trying to obtain a raise from his boss. The actual novel, however, is not a Choose Your Own Adventure affair. It more or less follows a route taken by a fictional employee, posed questions included, with no punctuation or capitalization between sentences.

I’m glad to say that I didn’t find this format or the whole of The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise unreadable at all. Its style allows for the carefully timed delivery of an existential quandary.

It’s fairly easy to get the initial joke of Perec’s game: By trying to maximize his chances of a raise and simplify the method of obtaining it, the employee makes the task of asking his boss for a raise appear exponentially more complicated. On the ground level, this is a matter of exposing a general human foible; take it up a notch and it exposes a philosophy specific to “simplifying” office operations.

In order to accommodate or make motions towards accommodating the complexity of human behavior, thought and needs, the modern office environment, particularly at the corporate level, needs to use simplification endeavors, that is, methods that reduce the number of factors present in accommodation. For example, “We’re having an employee appreciation party on Friday. Would you like a turkey meal or a tofu meal?” Or, “Do you enjoy being responsible for a variety of tasks or doing the same task every day?” By reducing consideration and accommodation to a series of yes/no or multiple choice questions, an illusion of action on someone’s behalf is achieved. Perec’s work was first published in 1968, but I don’t know that this basic principle has necessarily changed so much since then.

Photo by Markus Spiske

In The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise, we’re looking at the same illusion from the opposite direction. The employee is the one trying to measure up his boss’s reactions, moods and general receptivity, all in binary, considering factors right down to whether the cafeteria is serving an egg dish or a fish dish for lunch that day. That these factors are likely to bloom outward into infinity, reducing any possible action to thought, soon becomes a given.

What makes the novel a three-dimensional landscape, rather than a flat caricature of the original concept, is that the employee’s self-interested thoughts begin to drift to areas other than the subject of the raise. Specifically, they go in a hypochondriacal direction, regularly returning to the question of whether the boss could be sick with measles and therefore contagious.

This paranoia could technically be related to the question of a raise. For example, the employee could worry about his boss’s health in the same way he worries about whether the man has swallowed a fish bone at lunch and therefore isn’t in an optimal mood for being confronted on financial matters.

However, it seems that what’s actually happening is that the system the employee is using to determine how to take action has become a system that determines how to not take action, because it is in itself, as already mentioned, a borrowed approach based around the very idea of inaction. This in itself is nothing extraordinary, but Perec goes a step further. He demonstrates how the system has taken root in the character’s mind to the point that it has moved past its presumed purpose and begun creating conditions for its own survival, making it indeed more of an art than a science.

Thanks to the publisher of this translation, Verso Books, you can enjoy or be frustrated by The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise in a real-time game format.

You can even share your thwarted attempts on social media, as I have.