My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“The person who interviewed her had no face.” And thus begins the ride of discovery in this familiar, yet surreal novel: how far will someone go to preserve self and to preserve someone they love?
When asked what her book is about, Helen Phillips replied, “I took to telling people I was writing a “poetic thriller” about a woman who gets a data entry job in a big, windowless building and then her husband begins to disappear.” Over seven years’ time, Phillips rewrote her novel—then, at over 300 pages—cutting it down to a deftly created adventure exploring the deepest meanings of our lives.
“Every morning the Database awaited her like a living thing, luminous and familiar, alongside stacks of gray files.” This book is not about the future, it is set in 2013, in an eerily similar parallel world. Josephine, having left what feels like the suburbs, moving into what feels like a New York borough, is faced with survival. She succumbs to taking any income she can secure. In this case: accepting employment from an innominate robot-like boss known to the reader as “the Person with Bad Breath”. Her job: matching the consistency of the database to that of the piles of paper on her desk. “The Database hummed, hungry.”
“But no need to be curious” is what her android boss tells her. “She spent the rest of the day working as diligently as a robot. A dutiful, mechanical heart.” Slowly, we witness the scratched, bare walls teeter Josephine’s resolve. Her eyes: red. Her nerve: broken. “We all eat at our desks” say her mostly hidden co-workers. “She found it impossible to be fastidious nowadays.”
There is one chapter in particular where I didn’t know what was going on—Josephine’s usual play on words was breaking apart. She would look at word like “legibly” and the writing would be:
Write it legibly?
Despite the breakdown, we see the determination: “She didn’t need to understand her job; she just needed to keep it.”
As you read this book, the author will remind you, “Wasn’t there a fairy tale about a girl with a spindle and a room of infinite straw?” Josephine, trapped by her own accord, trying to discover, obtain the undefined dream. ““I trust that you are thriving here?” She felt only somewhat deceitful as she nodded her agreement.”
THE BEAUTIFUL BUREAUCRAT is much more than resolution under monotonous, necessary employment. This book’s essence is the relationship. As she comes home, her husband proclaims a toast, “To bureaucrats with boring office jobs. May we never discuss them at home.”
Josephine is given a pomegranate—as represented on the book’s front cover—a gift. She’s unfamiliar with how to cut the fruit, to treat that gift. This is a small, subtle representation of the more powerful meanings later and throughout the book.
The interplay between Josephine and her husband is both touching and mysterious. “He was naked and she was dressed but they both knew who was really naked and who was really dressed.” The unraveling as a result of the lonely, claustrophobic office is expedited by an often missing husband. “Without him she was just a lonely brain hurtling through space, laughing quietly to itself.”
I thoroughly enjoyed the build-up in this book: the start of mystery, the hint of near-future robotic takeover, the control of bureaucracy—all to end in a surprising, touching conclusion. Helen Phillips has done an excellent job with THE BEAUTIFUL BUREAUCRAT, keeping my curiosity piqued throughout, and in the end, touching my heart.
Thank you to Henry Holt and Co. for providing this book for my review!
You can find this book’s preview and its other reviews on Amazon, here: The Beautiful Bureaucrat: A Novel
And, thanks to Audible Studios, they are providing you with a clip of their audiobook version of this terrific novel: