Book Review: The Beautiful Bureaucrat
by Helen Phillips
Henry Holt, 2015
When a novel is aggressively strange, either in language or content, it helps if the author has something witty or profound to say. The slangy wonderland that is A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, explores redemption and free will. Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk, rails against consumerism and the brittle core of 20th century maleness. In her slim new novel about the young and jobless, author Helen Phillips (And Yet They Were Happy, 2011) tackles nothing less than life and death. Enter, please, The Beautiful Bureaucrat.
Our heroine is Josephine Newbury, an Everywoman who wears cardigans, sensible flats, and is desperate to end her unemployment streak. She and her husband, the also unemployed Joseph, came to the city from the “hinterland” hoping to build secure lives. Joseph already scored a job, and how Josephine is being interviewed by The Person With Bad Breath in a monstrous concrete building—for a position she knows nothing about.
Joseph, meanwhile, is guarding their possessions outside their former apartment. Josephine’s smile about landing a data entry position in a windowless cube becomes a frown after learning about their eviction. Later, in the Four-Star Diner, the young marrieds toast the fact that they now both have “boring office jobs. May we never discuss them at home.” Or in the diner—since the waitress Hillary lets them sleep at their table for the night.
Jo and Joey quickly get a dank sublet and settle into organ-curdling routine. In the concrete building, labeled solely with an overlapping A/Z, Josephine sits in room 9997 and enters numbers from files into the Database. All day. The files belong to individual people, and each contains five pages of alphanumeric gibberish. Soon the oppressive stretches of adding to the Database give Josephine bloodshot eyes and acne. When she tries to eat lunch outside or tack a calendar to her blank wall, she’s officiously rebuked.
Most fully-functional adults, if told how to spend their lunch break, don’t hesitate to flip the bird. But Josephine is transforming! She loves rules and numbers and
she carried the Database around inside her; it floated in her brain like a net for catching and killing any glistening idea that came along. Sitting on the blanket on the floor, looking deep into the heart of the cheap white wine in the plastic cup, she confessed to Joseph: “I’m becoming a bureaucrat.”
“Drink some water,” he said. “Eat some vegetables.” He stood up and went to the kitchenette.
“89805242381!” she whispered to herself. It felt almost good.
“We still have those carrots I think.”
“Doesn’t my voice sound like the voice of a bureaucrat?”
“Actually they’re slimy now,” he said, slamming the door of the mini-fridge. He returned to the blanket and handed her a coffee-stained mug filled with water. “Drink up, bureau rat.”
Phillips’ prose blends vibrant imagery with the awkward humor of The Office. This is fully embodied by the character Trishiffany Carmenta, a cheerful senior bureaucrat at A/Z who wears candy-colored suits against her bright blonde hair. The woman’s painful-to-read name, combining Trisha (“a patrician” in Latin) and Tiffany (“manifestation of God” in Greek), hints at the novel’s aim for grandeur.
Skewing that aim, however, is Phillips’ attraction to phrases like “bureau rat.” Josephine and her husband play word games throughout the narrative. When Joseph admits to being scared of their horrible life, she says, “Join the club.” With empty, knee-jerk cleverness he replies, “Loin the lub.” While living, breathing people may have verbal ticks that make them either endearing or tiresome, Phillips slathers the unfolding of her mystery in wordplay: “She escaped onto a path lined with cattails. Scat tit. At ails. A row of dead cats all hung up by their tails.”
These moments are more distracting than evocative of Josephine’s paranoia, more exhausting than poetic. Our urge to know what the files at A/Z ultimately mean grows as dull under so much fluorescent gimmickry. In a novel longer than 177 pages, Phillips may have given herself room to build a world of sprawling tones and textures. Here, unfortunately, brevity fails to be the soul of wit.