Tag Archives: surreal

Review: The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips

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Where did I get this book? The library.

Where did I get this book? The library.

I was sufficiently intrigued by the unusual title and lovely cover of this book to pick it up; it was only after I was half-way through that I noticed the superlative blurb on the cover: “Funny, sad, scary, and beautiful. I love it.” –URSULA K. LE GUIN

Okay, if I’d needed any additional incentive to start reading, such stellar praise from one of my favorite authors would have done the trick.

The Beautiful Bureaucrat deserves the praise.The story opens with Josephine, a young woman in desperate need of a job, interviewing with an unnervingly faceless bureaucrat. Josephine and her husband, Joseph, have been hard hit by an ongoing economic crisis, and jobs are scarce, so she is happy to take any job, even one as monotonous as this position appears to be.

Her sole duty is to enter apparently meaningless strings of letters and numbers from a paper file into a corresponding record in a computer database. It is mind-numbing work, and as someone who once did data entry as a temp back in the day, I can confirm that Phillips perfectly captures the emotional ups and downs of performing a stupefying function, the little treats and breaks that become essential to staying sane.

In Josephine’s case, sanity is under considerably more threat than usual. The walls bear the smudges of past employees’ fingerprints, and it would seem, the scratch marks from their nails. Josephine’s quest to get answers to the simplest of questions–where is a vending machine?–proves truly Kafkaesque as she encounters misinformed doppelgangers and endless identical floors. Worse still, she’s not allowed to speak to anyone about her job as a condition of employment, even as her misgivings grow.

Meanwhile, her relationship with Joseph becomes strained, smothered under the weight of unspoken secrets. They moved to the city together from their childhood home in the “hinterland,” optimistic that their love would see them through despite the skepticism of their families. They have been trying to have a baby, without success. As they move from one sad sublet to the next, Joseph begins to disappear without explanation. Josephine fears that someone is following her and somehow, missed delivery notices appear on the doorstep of each place they live, even though she’s given no one the address.

The tension and suspense continue to build throughout this strangely lovely story, and the author brilliantly balances the realities of young love, tedious work, and financial insecurity with the surreal existential logic of a recurring dream.

Genre: Surreal literary fiction.

Read it if: You enjoy Kafka, pomegranates, and novels set in the workplace; you know what it’s like to be young, broke, and in love; or you are willing to take Ursula K. Le Guin’s word for it that this is a really great book.

Skip it if: You have a deep-seated fear of bad breath; you prefer strict adherence to logic over surreal office work; you are pretty sure “beautiful bureaucrat’ is an oxymoron.

Movie-worthy: Totally. I was picturing Tilda Swinton as Josephine’s faceless boss the entire time.


Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Where did I get this book? Bought it, and it's GORGEOUS!

Where did I get this book? Bought it, and it’s GORGEOUS!

Set in the world of post-Arthurian England, The Buried Giant is Kazuo Ishiguro’s first foray into the world of fantasy. While it’s true that ogres, pixies and dragons play pivotal roles in the story, The Buried Giant is a fantasy novel in the same way that Never Let Me Go is science fiction; Ishiguro’s exquisite skill as a storyteller ultimately makes the question of genre irrelevant.

Axl and Beatrice, two elderly Britons, resolve to leave their subterranean village and undertake a journey to see their son. They have become increasingly marginalized by the other villagers, taunted by children and reduced to spending their nights in darkness when their candle is taken away. More troubling, however, is the mist that seeps through the region, clouding and erasing memories. Axl and Beatrice can recall only that they love each other; details of their past together, even of their son, are scant and difficult to retain.

When the two shelter at a nearby Saxon village, Beatrice seeks out a wise woman, hoping to get help for the pain in her side and perhaps learn more about the cause of the mist. Her friend advises her to travel to a monastery to find a monk reputed to be a healer. Axl agrees to the detour, even though it means a more arduous climb, and soon they have acquired a pair of unexpected traveling companions whose fates become intertwined with their own. It becomes clear that there may be a way to lift the mist and recover what they have forgotten, but will they want to remember?

The Buried Giant displays the  gorgeous, heartbreaking subtlety that makes all of Ishiguro’s novels so deeply affecting and powerful. Axl and Beatrice are pulled toward the conclusion of their quest by the enigmatic power of dream logic, their lost memories an irresistible unknown.

Genre: Fantasy quest with surreal elements and existential resonance.

Read it if: You loved (and/or were permanently scarred by) Never Let Me Go; you enjoy movies like Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or books like Kafka’s The Trial or Harvest by Jim Crace; you are intrigued by the unreliable nature of memory.

Skip it if: You dislike ambiguity, fantasy elements, fairy tales or stories weighty with meaning; you’re looking for a fast-paced adventure story; you prefer your protagonists young and spry.

Movie-worthy: I don’t know if it could be done. I never saw the movie they made of Never Let Me Go because a) it sounded too emotionally painful to contemplate and b) it seemed impossible for a movie to even approach the level of the book.


Review: Find Me by Laura Van Den Berg

Find Me by Laura Van Den BergIn Find Me, a 19-year-old grocery store clerk named Joy Jones survives a terrible plague that ravages the memory before killing its victims. She is invited to join others in a hospital where they can be observed and tested in hopes of uncovering the secret to their immunity.

Joy, whose name can only be intended ironically, was abandoned as a baby and grew up in foster care and group homes, where terrible things happened to her. She has repressed some of her early childhood memories, and speculates that this sealed-off corner of her mind is the source of her immunity to the memory disease. Joy relied on stolen cough syrup to get her through her tedious days before the plague hit; her time in the hospital hardly seems better or worse than her prior existence.

Joy tells the story in first-person present tense, and at least to me it felt like being trapped in someone else’s ongoing nightmare. The hospital is founded on lies. A childhood companion with a penchant for animal masks and clairvoyance suddently reappears. She finds herself traveling on buses that are going in the wrong direction, lost at night, driving through hellish landscapes, abandoned on the roadside.

On a quest to find the mother who abandoned her, Joy encounters rundown locations populated by disturbed and broken people. A junkie lying prone on a bathroom floor. A damaged girl wearing angel wings who eats the dirt from beneath her fingernails.

I love a post-apocalyptic dystopia as much as anyone, but I have to admit this unsettling story left me feeling queasy. When Joy’s surreal journey finally ended, I was more than happy to wake up.

Genre: Surreal post-apocalyptic dystopia.

Read it if: You don’t require clear boundaries between reality and nightmare; you are okay with ambiguous outcomes; you’ve read a lot of Kafka while high on cough syrup.

Skip it if: You prefer to avoid reading about child abuse; you are currently in the hospital; or you are looking for a light read and think the pretty blue cover looks cheerful.

Movie-worthy: If Ingmar Bergman were still alive, sure.


Review: The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

The Flame AlphabetThe Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus imagines a world in which speech has become toxic, in which the words of children sicken the adults around them. The idea sounds far-fetched; yet after finishing the book I knew from personal experience that words can nauseate their audience. That seemed to be not only The Flame Alphabet’s plot, but also its goal.

Sam, the narrator of this profoundly disturbing tale, once lived a life of smugly satisfied marriage and humbly defeated fatherhood. When he and his wife Claire become ill, they initially assume it has nothing to do with their daughter Esther and the words she routinely hurls at them like so many stones. As it turns out, the content of her speech is completely beside the point; even the sweetest words are ultimately lethal to the adult who hears them. Words kill and only children are immune.

Sam attempts all sorts of implausible home remedies, urged on by the mysterious voices he hears together with his wife in their “synagogue hut.” They belong to a secret sect of Judaism which holds that faith should not be practiced or discussed with any other person. The rituals of this particular sect are bizarre and organic, involving a pit in the ground, orange cables, and a device called a Listener, or Moses Mouth, described in terms that make it sound like a living thing.

Meanwhile, a man who calls himself Murphy skulks around the community and it appears he is involved in the perpetuation of rumors about the sickening. He knows more than he should about the synagogue huts and their purpose, and seems to believe the cables connecting them hold the link to a deeper truth. He is obviously a manipulative liar, yet Sam encounters him repeatedly throughout the events of the novel, and seems unable to resist the force of Murphy’s personality.

The story grows increasingly nightmarish as Sam describes in visceral detail the symptoms of his and Claire’s illness, his strange interactions with Murphy, and his passive responses to the bizarre events around him. Reality has no footing; there are only rumors and speculations, absurd experiments designed to cure or at least alleviate the symptoms of the sickness, Kafkaesque attempts to devise and test an alphabet or script that can be perceived without harm. Without language, the surviving adults behave like mindless cattle, treating each other with cruel indifference, while the children run wild in quarantine zones.

The method ultimately devised to allow speech for at least short periods of time seemed to deliberately echo the horrific accusation of blood libel, which frankly creeped me out. In fact, the entire novel made me think of the alienation effect of Bertolt Brecht’s plays (assuming I’m remembering it right; it’s been a while since college.) Sam is not a narrator who evokes empathy or sympathy or any human warmth whatsoever. His reactions to events appalled and repelled me, so often it felt deliberate. Similarly, it was impossible to slip into the story and flow with it, because the author constantly turned the familiar on its head, usually in a nausea-inducing manner. For example, people keep eating “lobes.” What the heck is a lobe in this case? I had shudder-inducing visions of families sitting around the dinner table with a quarter brain on their plate. Maybe the whole disease is a bizarre form of kuru.

Coincidentally, I saw a thread on Quora the other day that discussed whether you should keep reading a book you’re not enjoying. I was curious to see how people answered because I’ve always had a hard time putting down a book once I’d become sufficiently invested (although I’m getting better about this as I get older.) Most people said life is too short to read a book you don’t enjoy, or suggested that the only reason someone might persist is to earn imaginary points for reading some critically acclaimed tome or essential classic work.

In this case, while I can honestly say I did not enjoy The Flame Alphabet, I suspect that wasn’t exactly the point of the book in the first place. Something else was going on in the dark heart of this twisted novel, something powerful and deeply unsettling. It took words and made them toxic, imagined communication as a form of weapon, comprehension as a curse. Although a similar theme was explored in a much more accessible and high-concept manner in Max Barry’s recent thriller Lexicon, The Flame Alphabet had a significantly more ambitious and sinister message.

In the end, when Sam is utterly alone, he wishes more than anything that consciousness had been extinguished along with the ability to speak, to read, to write, to convey something from that strange and lonely universe within the individual. If communication is no longer possible, the interior monologue becomes a burden, a hated voice that never stops. It is just about as bleak a book as I have ever read. Seriously, The Road seems kind of hopeful by comparison. But it also seared itself into my brain in a way that few books do.

Genre: Surreal literary horror

Read it if: You enjoy a challenge, you’re not put off by a little vomit, or you have always secretly envied children their blissful lack of comprehension.

Skip it if: You dislike feeling seasick while reading; you can’t stand reading about bad things happening to children; or you strongly feel that protagonists should be likable, relatable, etc.

Movie-worthy: No, thank you.