It is difficult to pin down your novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat (2015): a dystopia that reads like a thriller with brief incursions into horror, literary modernism and satire? It’s hard to say. But, by trying too much, and rushing to the tidy end, it might have fallen short of being great in any of these categories.
Josephine is a woman in her early 30s who has recently moved to a big city with her husband Joseph in hopes of finding better jobs and new opportunities. Short on money, they are evicted early in the novel, and are forced to live in a succession of unwelcoming sublets. After a long period of unemployment, Josephine finally finds an office job at a mysterious corporation in a windowless building.
Under the supervision of an unnamed, nearly featureless boss with halitosis, she is assigned the mindless task of comparing paper files to entries on a computer database whose purpose she doesn’t know and is told to ignore. Every day, she sits alone in her small and claustrophobic office, surrounded by pinkish walls marked with smears of fingerprints and the maddening rattle of typewriters.
Gradually, Josephine and the reader begin to suspect that there is something odd about this office: strangers seem to know details of Josephine’s life without being told about it; the bureaucrats she meets in the building look like her; she thinks she is being followed by a man in grey suit; in the vending machine in the office she only finds expired but addictive candy that eventually cuts her tongue; at every sublet she moves to, she receives missed package delivery notifications from an unknown sender. One night, Joseph does not come home, and she feels he is pulling away from her. It seems that the only good thing in her life is disappearing, as though the dullness of the office were slowly taking hold of her.
Simultaneously, she becomes more and more obsessed with understanding what the database means. Her eyes get bloodshot, her skin dries, and even the database language and wordplay start to permeate her mind. It feels as if the office and its database were replacing her relationship with Joseph; as if their life together seemed less real than the eerie corporation she is working at.
The novel is permeated by growing tension and a pervasive sense of dread: the characters are confined in claustrophobic rooms (windowless offices; tiny, dirty sublets full of strangers’ belongings); to make matters worse, the walls seem to be closing in around them. There is a hint at surveillance, as Josephine is victim of vague menaces by her boss. The background has a nightmarish quality (people step on worms; candy cuts your tongue; bad breath smells like poison; typewriters sound like cockroaches; unwanted people are frequently sneaking up when one least expects it), and the database may or may not pose a mysterious threat to Josephine’s life.
The highlight of your book for me is the writing, especially in the second part, where Josephine’s mind seems to be in tune with the database language. There’s a crudeness to your writing, and a bizarre sense of humour. I also appreciate the wordplay and the dark symbols you make use of: one evening, Joseph hands Josephine a pomegranate, the “fruit of the dead” according to Ancient Mythology; the fruit offered to Persephone by Hades; the fruit brought to Moses to prove the fertility of the promised land; the forbidden fruit of Judeo-Christian Genesis; and the fruit that, bursting open, symbolises Jesus’ suffering. In another scene, a neighbour had a multi-headed dog that looked like Cerberus, guarding the apartment; a waitress had a green snaked tattooed on her arm, and offered to tell Josephine’s fortune. The database seems to be an omniscient god working according to inscrutable policies, a faceless force, neither bad nor good (“Oh, don’t thank me. There’s nothing benevolent here either. I’m not doing favours, I’m doing paperwork.”).
The narrative cleverly captures the way repetition and boredom take over the mind. It depicts the way poverty and mindless work have a mind-numbing, alienating effect on people, turning them faceless and blind and drained of life, to the point where institution and worker become interchangeable. Finally, it captures well the process of going through midlife crisis: Josephine and her husband are stuck in life, and have nowhere to turn to; Josephine’s paralysis, in particular, is all-consuming: she cannot clean the apartment, go to the post office nor report that her husband went missing. Like Bartleby the Scrivener, she would prefer not to do this.
I also enjoyed the raw treatment of motherhood. Amid Josephine’s fall from grace, in her descent into the database hell, she finds solace in the prospect of becoming pregnant. The tiny beast growing inside her, draining her body from the inside, is the very thing that provides her with vitality enough to fight back the soul-sucking effect of the office.
However, the pieces of your puzzle tie together too neatly in the end, and the book loses in depth. The uncanny aspect that had been the novel’s strength is disassembled and put aside. We have a sense of something more complex being flattened to serve a purpose and fit in a mould. And that’s a shame, my dear. I would have wanted for the eerie atmosphere to have lingered a little more, beyond explanations, wordplay or humming typewriters.
“She reached for Joseph’s hand. He did not reach back. There was a force field of solitude around him. He ran a foot ahead of her, sometimes seeming like a stranger, sometimes like her twin. He refused to look at her. She wanted to know what it was that he didn’t want her to see: panic, selfishness, loneliness. Humble nervous pitful human hope.” – Helen Phillips, The Beautiful Bureaucrat
“But ‘baby’ was too tame a word for this vitality. Beast, miniature beast, precious perfect beast just emerged from the blackness of the universe, rich with desires. Her heart beat outrageously, like a tin can being slammed again and again with a rock. The divine, terrifying math.” – Helen Phillips, The Beautiful Bureaucrat
“‘I’m not the one who garnished our meal with glass’, Joseph said with an indecipherable smile. The air she breathed in her sleep blackened her lungs, yet her dreams contained snow, they contained forests.” – Helen Phillips, The Beautiful Bureaucrat
“It was so silent in 9997 – no noise but the sound of her fingers on the keyboard, her fingers opening the files – that she sensed a scream beneath the silence, a shrill shriek she recognized as the flow of her own blood in her ears, yet it sounded like a banshee trapped in the walls.” – Helen Phillips, The Beautiful Bureaucrat
About the book
- Henry Holt, 2015, 180 p. Goodreads
- Pushkin Press, 2017, 192 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 3,5 stars
- I read this book for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XII
- This book was kindly sent to me by Pushkin Press for review.