Book review: The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips

Imagine a hot, humid, endless summer, where job opportunities are scarce and the future looks rather bleak. It’s difficult, I know. But, if you like your fiction seasonal, topical, and just that little bit weird, Helen Phillips’ The Beautiful Bureaucrat, about a young woman who takes a mindless admin job in a soul-crushing office building, might just be your ideal August read.

This is a book that deliberately blends the unsettling with the mundane, a contradiction that generally serves to exaggerate the two extremes. Far be it for Josephine to be fazed by the fact that “the person who interviewed her had no face”- she’s just reassured that this might help deter other applicants to the job she is applying for. Even the explanation for the apparent facelessness is both perfectly bland and rather unnerving: the interviewer’s skin is simply so grey and washed-out by fluorescent light that it simply blended into the office walls.

From there, the novel descends into a whirlpool of tedium and surrealism, following Josephine’s work life alongside her repeated attempts to make a home with her husband Joseph (yes, Joseph), as the couple keep moving from one despairingly awful apartment to the next. With each ensuing scenario, Phillips demonstrates real skill for something I never thought I’d complement in a writer: she can write boredom very, very well. The couple pass the time by inverting words (Diagnostic Library/Agnostic Library). Social Security numbers take on a musical, repetitive quality. And as for Josephine’s job, which consists solely of adding the date to a set of indecipherable forms – well, that is a finely tuned machine of boredom. She “reward[s] herself with a trip to the bathroom” after fifty files, savours a single inspired thought is an oasis in an intellectual drought (before mourning its loss when it slips from her mind), and seeks entertainment – fulfilment, even – in the relentless, monotonous work before her:

And there was a certain satisfaction to it, in making her way through the piles of gray files, in noting the odder or more colorful names, in observing the small yet striking coincidences (a triumvirate of surnames that ended with “X,” someone with the initials “SOB,” a pair of Michael Jacksons), in sliding the files one by one into Outgoing.

Phillips’ brilliant observation of the minutiae of boredom is downright unnerving. Who knew there was such universality in those tiny rewards we imagine we give ourselves during such horrifically repetitive tasks, those phantom serotonin boosts that make such work bearable?

Phillips_2That being said, even well-written boredom can risk becoming a tad boring after a while, and while I was drawn in enough by The Beautiful Bureaucrat to read it in a single sitting, by the middle of the book I did find myself impatient for the twist that I knew was coming. Without spoiling anything, the plot builds to a revelation that simultaneously changes the thrust of the story and answers small, niggling questions that arose earlier in the novella. It’s gripping and well-executed, fulfilling the “existentialist thriller” promise on the blurb, but it comes a little too late in the story for my liking.

I don’t think I would have felt this way had the plot been more fully fleshed out; as it stands, Phillips deliberately keeps her narrative light on superficial detail. Locations remain nameless, with supporting characters faring little better: the faceless interviewer is referred to, Voldemort-like, as The Person with Bad Breath, while another office worker is called Trishaffany (“My parents couldn’t pick between Trisha and Tiffany”). With hindsight, there is meaning to some of this deliberate indistinction, while the rest contributes to that aforementioned unsettling surrealism. Nothing the characters say or do is necessarily unexpected, but nor is it entirely familiar. It doesn’t seem odd that the faceless interviewer asks Josephine if she plans to have children one day (as illegal as that might be); it is odd, however, that their specific choice of words is “You wish to procreate?”.

The result is a narrative that constantly, deliberately, feels jarring, almost inviting the reader in before pushing them away. It’s well-executed and, at times entertaining, but like I say, it did begin to drag a little right before things turn on their head. Had The Beautiful Bureaucrat been a long short story, rather than a short novel/novella, that might have bridged that disconnect for me. Then again, perhaps that is the point. Perhaps, as with every other element of the book, the length treads that fine line between boredom and surreality, between the tedious and the unsettling. Because let me tell you: once that revelation came to pass, things got very surreal very quickly, hooking me in until the final page.

Thank you to Pushkin Press for sending me a free copy of The Beautiful Bureaucrat in exchange for my honest review.

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