I think for my 2012 “Year in Reading” I’m going to try and be topical, since I’m guessing this series will feature enough laundry lists of great books as it is. So, since my book The End of Oulipo? is publishing in January from Zero Books, I’ll make my topic Oulipo literature. I’ve certainly been reading enough of it lately.
This is the year I had the great good fortune to discover Harry Mathews, for a long time the only American Oulipo author, and certainly one of the greats of 20th-century literature. For Mathews newbies, I think there are two places to start, depending on your reading habits. If you like to be tossed into the deep end, then go for Mathews’s first novel, The Conversions (and read Ed Park’s excellent essay on said book). It’s, well, a very strange novel about a quest to solve a riddle in a dead man’s will, where each chapter becomes a strange metamorphosis of the preceding chapters. It ends with one of the more beautiful extended metaphors I’ve read all year, and on which I write at length in The End of Ouliopo?
If you, alternatively, prefer good old plot, then start with what I and many others consider Mathews’s masterwork, Cigarettes, which is one of the most plot-heavy books you will read all year, despite Mathews’s insistence that it was his only “properly” Oulipian novel. (On the surface, it will appear much more Edith Wharton than Raymond Queneau.) I then recommend A D Jameson’s essay “I Read It for the Plot: The Narrative Artistry of Harry Mathews’ Cigarettes” for a great analysis of just why Mathews’s rendition of a plot-heavy novel is so damn literary.
Mathews also wrote Singular Pleasures, 61 short accounts of masturbation, along with a collection of other odds and ends. It is more difficult to find than his proper novels, but well worth seeking out.
This year I also read virtually everything of Georges Perec’s that has been translated (many for the second time). I’ll toss out a recommendation for his wonderful collection of essays and miscellaneous texts, Species of Spaces. It includes the story “The Winter Journey,” the best Borgesian short story written by a Frenchman. I will also put in a recommendation for Perec’s strange short novel W, or the Memory of a Childhood, which always seems to be left behind when people talk about the more bizarre A Void (the novel without the letter e) or the masterpiece, Life: A User’s Manual.
Of the lesser-known Oulipo members, the works of Jacques Roubaud should not be missed. His Mathematics, just published this year, is a great introduction to this writer who marries Oulipo, Proust, and mathematics (it’s a strange marriage). Then there is the first book by the second American Oulipo member, Daniel Levin Becker, called Many Subtle Channels. Not a properly Oulipian book per se (if we’re defining that as having some sort of constraint), Many Subtle Channels is something along the lines of a memoir spliced with literary criticism, reportage, and good old boosterism of a fantastic body of literature. And lastly, I’ll toss in Marcel Benabou’s strange anti-novel Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books.
And then, after the well-known Oulipo and the lesser known, we get to the authors I regard as somehow being in league with Oulipo, but not actually being a part of the collective. Christian Bök, who has taught microbes to make poetry, certainly must be some kind of kin to the Oulipo. I discuss both his Crystallography and Eunoia (the latter consisting of chapters that only utilize one vowel at a time) in The End of Oulipo? I also regard César Aira is having some relevance here for his “constant flight forward,” certainly a writing constraint of a kind. For an idea, have a look at his just-translated Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira.
There are lots more out there to find, and many beyond that still only readable in French. Beyond Perec’s dream journals (which Levin Becker is translating for Melville House), there’s Ian Monk’s Plouk Town, (raved by Levin Becker and also called “untranslatable” by him — just the kind of challenge an Oulipian would relish), an anthology of “sequels” to Perec’s “Winter Journey” that is currently being translated, and Anne F. Garréta, whom my co-author, Lauren Elkin, recommends should be translated post-haste in The End of Oulipo? For an idea of the riches that await us, have a look at Drunken Boat’s Oulipo feature.
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“Let’s keep things simple, for we must do our best to keep things simple, otherwise we would be utterly lost” is one of the refrains found in the new translation of George Perec’s novella The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise. Keeping with this guiding mantra, simplicity is what I will aim for in the following consideration in ten somewhat succinct points:
1. The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise was born of a project conceived circa 1968, by a French computer company that hoped to make computers more appealing to and useful for creative types. Of course, it’s difficult to believe that there was ever time when computer scientists had to try to make computers more artist- and writer-friendly, now that the digital mode dominates the arts in so many ways. In terms of text, so much is composed on keyboards and read via technological devices, be it laptop, smartphone, Kindle–this review included–one must conclude that these engineers were quite successful in their campaign.
2. Perec was asked to structure his book by following a computer’s basic mode of operation. The task set before him was to describe the steps an employee would take in order to obtain a pay raise at the large organization where he is employed. The steps were listed in a flowchart that proceeds something like this: Is your boss in his office? If yes, knock on his door. If no, hang around and try to chat with his secretary. Is his secretary in a good mood? Is it Lent? If yes, did your boss eat eggs for lunch? Much revolves around the timing of the approach, the health of the line manager’s children, and the daily cafeteria menu. As Perec reminds you, the aspiring worker, a manager’s gastric problems can easily overshadow the case for a wage increase, however deserved, and so, “You have every reason to glean what information you can on the staff cafeteria menu and to keep an eye on the dietary behavior of your line manager during his midday meal.”
3. Fiction like this, that follows the structure of a computer program, is called “matrix literature.” A situation is presented, the answer is either yes or no, and the next move depends entirely on the answer. Either your boss (mr x) is in his office or he isn’t, either his secretary (miss wye) is at her desk and willing to shoot the breeze or she’s not.
4. However, Perec avoids sounding stiff or unyielding by adding a human element to the structure. He supplies the flesh and spirit to the skeleton, if you will, by capturing the dreary weight of routine, by showing the maddening lengths one will go to in order to predict the precise moment that the boss is available and fortune leans ever so slightly in one’s favor. There are some truths to glean from all of this: even a computer program cannot circumvent the poor mental and physical health of your superior and his family, both of which have more sway than ill-timed pleas. A boss’s constant unavailability results in discovering many imaginative ways to kill time. Office life can be measured in strolls and “chin wags” with secretaries. Opportunity rarely exists and is often missed.
5. In Perec’s essay “Approaches to What?” included in his book Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, he outlines his interest in the quotidian. The main concern set forth in this essay (and demonstrated in this book) is, “How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infraordinary, the background noise, the habitual?” His answer is to dwell on our routines, to realize the intricacies of the everyday, to question the ordinary: “What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our tools, the way we spend out time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us.”
6. If anything, our poor narrator suffers from questioning too much. Deducing just when to approach your line manager for a raise is a very tiring ordeal, especially when performed repeatedly in one’s head and without opportunity to do so in real life. The text is written without punctuation and without capitalization (except for a few almighty office terms such as T60 issues). The narrative arc proceeds in circles, and likewise one sentence runs into the next, leading to a frenetic, neurotic pace of questioning and thinking, circling and stalling, which mirrors the narrator’s strolls around the office. All of these circles around always lead back to the boss’s office, both physically and mentally; it’s tiring, maddening. However, there’s a pleasure gleaned in the recognition that someone else’s office misery is worse than our own.
7. Times, days, and conditions under which one should absolutely not ask for a raise (as you’ll be denied or put off):
Fridays after lunch (mr x’s “gastric functions are likely to overshadow the professorial and managerial capacities associated with his hierarchical rank”)
following mr x’s lunchtime consumption of fish (he may have choked on a fishbone)
following mr x’s lunchtime consumption of eggs (they may be off)
Mondays, Saturdays, and Sundays (if the latter two are not already obvious, this is a losing battle)
during Lent in general (see fish & eggs)
if mr x’s daughters have measles
if mr x has red spots on his face (indicating either measles or food poisoning, ie, eggs)
if mr x does not look up when you knock
if mr x is not at his desk
8. Nothing is straightforward. It would be, we are reminded, if mr x were at his desk, happy and in perfect health, and, having dined on caviar for lunch, also willing and welcome to consider a request for a pay increase. However, this is rarely if ever the case. Fortuitous advances are often nullified by an opposite and even greater misfortune. Consider the streak of bad luck our humble employee encounters when returning for an appointment with mr x on a Thursday afternoon: mr x didn’t come in because his daughters have the day off from school, the next day our employee chokes on a fishbone, then mr x begins his annual leave only to return the day our employee is stricken with measles; by the time he recovers miss wye goes on holiday and when she returns “the economic situation constrains the firm to downsize quite seriously by a miracle you are spared which proves if proof were needed that you should never be overly pessimistic but it’s not a good time to ask for a raise anyway.” Eventually mr x’s four daughters multiply and bear 16 grandchildren, miss wye tires of chattering and lacks “the bonhomie of yesteryear,” or, even worse, she retires. The repetition and delay underscore, with great humor, the role of the “miniscule cogs,” in a sprawling and prestigious organization, who are subject to whim (though precious little whimsy) in its many great wheels.
9. Perec also dwelt on the issues of money and labor in his novel, Things: A Story of the Sixties, where Sylvie and Jérôme’s dreams of fortune and plentitude eventually lead them to give up their itinerant, independent lives for the stable salaried positions they’d sworn off when they were younger. They’ve achieved the lifestyle they’ve aspired for, though it’s not as grand as they’d imagined: “They will be presentable. They will be well housed, well fed, well dressed. They will not be wanting.” And yet there’s a trade-off implied in this contentment. In settling for the delight of possessing nice things and leading a comfortable lives, they are in fact far more average than they’d ever dreamed. Like the office employee, they are also cogs living within a preordained system greater than themselves. Perec writes of the way increasing age brings expectations of conformity and stability, ie, maturity, in attending to one’s work: “For if it is commonly accepted that people who have not yet reached thirty may remain relatively independent and work as and when it suits them, even if their availability, openness of mind, the variety of their experience and what is still called their adaptability is sometimes valued, it is on the other hand required, paradoxically, of any potential partner, once he has passed the milestone of his thirtieth birthday (and this is, precisely, what makes your thirtieth birthday a milestone) that he show some evidence of stability, provide some guarantees as to his punctuality, discipline, judicious behaviour.”
10. This only goes to show that even when you think you’ve made it, you haven’t. Such is the way with Sylvie and Jérôme, and also with our poor office employee. Having cleared the hurdle of meeting with his boss, another patch of thorns is uncovered: How does he broach the question? Is he led off track by other questions, such as whether this is a T60 issue, a question he does not know the answer to? Does he end up working on a new project to prove his value, but the new engineer does not favor him? Must he kill the engineer to get this raise or will fate grant him this one break? As time passes he is willing to settle for less as long as he gets the raise. More time passes, and he is almost ready to retire. It’s never-ending this quest for raises, for things, for security and advancement. It’s also a way to distract ourselves from the endless, ordinary banality of everyday life.