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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.