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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

NEW NOVEL: Helen Phillips: "The Beautiful Bureaucrat"

Author:  Helen Phillips  
Title:  The Beautiful Bureaucrat 
Plot Type:  Surreal Mystery/Thriller
Publisher:  Henry Holt and Company (8/2015)

                        PUBLISHER'S BLURB                        

     In a windowless office in a windowless building in a remote part of town, the newly employed Josephine types an endless string of numbers into something known only as The Database. Although she's happy to have found a job after a long period of searching, Josephine has the sense, even from the very first moment, that something strange is afoot in her new place of employment. Perhaps she's letting her imagination run wild, but it appears that her boss has no face, her only colleague has an uncanny memory, and the data she's processing has a logic just beyond her grasp.

     As the days inch by and the files stack up, Josephine feels increasingly anxious in her surroundings—the office's scarred pinkish walls take on a living quality, the drone of keyboards echoes eerily down the long halls. When one evening her devoted husband Joseph periodically disappears without explanation, offering no explanation, her creeping unease shifts decidedly to dread.

     As other strange events build to a crescendo, the haunting truth about Josephine's work begins to take shape in her mind, even as something powerful is gathering its own form within her. She realizes that in order to save those she holds most dear, she must penetrate an institution whose tentacles seem to extend to every corner of the city and beyond. 

     Both chilling and poignant, The Beautiful Bureaucrat is a novel of rare restraint and imagination…Phillips…twists the world we know and shows it back to us full of meaning and wonder—luminous and raw. Click HERE to view this book's video trailer.

                        MY REVIEW                       

     In an on-line interview with Karen Russell (Swamplandia, Vampires in the Lemon Grove), Phillips explains how she answers when someone asks her what this book is about: "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. That served to both answer and evade the question." Phillips goes on to explain that, "I was trying to make the story spiral outward and inward at the same time, toward the most cosmic as well as the most intimate interactions." She explains that, "I imagined Josephine and Joseph as an 'everycouple' of sorts, struggling with those basic, even primal, questions that we all have to answer—Where am I going to take shelter? Who will care for me, and for whom will I care? And what are we going to do about the cockroaches? On the other hand, it is specificity and idiosyncrasy that make us love a character, and so we must know that Joseph hates movies with happy endings, or that Josephine just wants 'to feel immaculate for a few minutes a day.'

     Phillips takes the narrative structure of Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener and turns it on its head in this existential tale in which a curious worker-drone becomes increasingly alarmed over the activities of her faceless, passive-aggressive boss (always referred to as The Person with Bad Breath) and the huge, impersonal company that employs them both. Many authors would cast big business as the bad guy: intimidating the hapless workers, suppressing free will, and hiding an evil purpose behind every swipe of the computer key. But Phillips takes a different approach. Here, the bureaucracy is portrayed as neither moral nor immoral, neither good nor evil. At one point, in response to a "thank you," the bad-breathed boss chuckles, "Oh, don't thank me. There's nothing benevolent here…I'm not doing favors, I'm doing paperwork. Getting all the ducks in a row." But…what ducks? What row?

     In the early years of their marriage, Josephine Anne Newbury, who has kept her maiden name, and her husband, Joseph David Jones, have moved to the big city from "the hinterlands." After a long period of job searching, Joseph has found an administrative job, and now Josephine has an interview for a data-entry job. With her perfect vision, good skin, ordinary clothes, and politely passive personality, Josephine has the makings of a beautiful bureaucrat. Foreshadowing a soon-to-be-revealed edgy mystery, the building has only two entrances (labeled "A" and "Z."), and the interviewer asks strange questions: Did Josephine "see anything unusual en route to the interview?" "Does it bother you that your husband has such a common-place name? Do you "wish to procreate?" Even though Josephine wonders about the legality of these questions, she really needs this job, so she cooperates with the interviewer and is soon conducted to the closet-sized, pinkish-walled, windowless room that will be her workplace: "Five steps and Josephine could touch the opposite side. A metal desk and an outdated computer buzzed in the ill light of an overhead fluorescent. Beside the computer, stacks of gray files."

Josephine's first file
     When Josephine asks questions about the files and "The Database" into which she is to input dates and corrections, her bad-breathed boss replies politely, "We appreciate your curiosity." And then adds, "But no need to be curious." At first, Josephine tries to ignore her concerns: "She didn't need to understand her job; she just needed to keep it." But as time passes and strange incidents occur in Josephine's life, she, like Wonderland's Alice, gets curiouser and curiouser: What is the meaning of all of the seemingly random numbers and symbols in the files? How is the information in The Database being used? How and why do her bad-breathed boss and Trishiffany, her colorfully clothed, friendly-but-menacing immediate supervisor, manage to pop up out of nowhere in her office? Why won't the elevator doors open on the sixth floor? Why is there no cell phone reception? Why are there no windows in the entire building? Why do all of the employees eat lunch at their desks and never, ever socialize? And why do they all remind her of herself"same sagging cardigan and sensible shoes...unremarkable face…exhausted expression" and bloodshot eyes? Soon, Josephine becomes an addled Nancy Drew, searching out clues and trying to keep from jumping to some very scary conclusions.

     As Josephine and Joseph move from grim one sublet to another, Josephine goes to work every day, and then returns home to enjoy an offbeat, but pleasant, dinner with Josephher saving grace in this strange new big-city life. One night, Joseph doesn't come home and doesn't call. And then he does it again. When Josephine arrives home to find attempted-delivery postal notices taped to the doors of each sublet, she feels a cold shiver because they haven't given out their ever-changing addresses to anyone. At this point, the story has the feel of a horror movie just before the hockey-masked killer shows up. But Phillips has a much more subtle horror in mind. Troublesome details multiply: Josephine's recurring sighting of a man in a gray sweatshirt; a vicious, barking dog that might have three heads; a cartoonish waitress who tells fortunes; and Joseph's strange behavior. By now, Josephine's mind is wild with speculation as she tries to figure out what's going at work and what's going on with Joseph.

     Josephine and Joseph constantly engage in games of wordplay that are not exactly puns, but more of an "irrepressible voice, always twisting language from withinhis wordplay met her unrest." One strange night after he disappears and reappears without explanation the second time, they have this exchange:

     "Are you a demon?" 
     "Demon demeanor," he said. "Demoner." 
     He dropped her wrist and went for the buttons on her blouse. 
     She slapped his hands hard, as hard as she could; it felt good.
     "Demean or?" she spat.

     Sometimes Phillips lets herself go too far with this device, but frequently the results are quite humorous, as when Josephine sees a poster at a doctor's office that says "BE SURE TO EAT THREE HOURS BEFORE DONATING BLOOD." She wonders, "What's it like to eat three hours? She was feeling impish. How do they taste? Like cotton candy or grass or concrete?"

     Symbolically and metaphorically, Phillips pulls from Greek mythology, Christian theology, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Dante's Inferno, and Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, among others. At one point, Josephine even compares herself to the heroine of the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale, but with a computer and files rather than a spindle and straw. Among the elements supporting the metaphors are these details: the waitress's green-snake tattoo (the Garden of Eden story); Joseph's presenting Josephine a pomegranate (the Persephone myth); the move from sublet to sublet as a simulation of a descent into Hell (Dante); and the deterioration of Josephine's emotional stability and physical changes—just like Alice after she falls down the rabbit hole.

     Phillips paces the story perfectly, letting clues slip gradually into the narrative. We learn why Josephine has been feeling so strange, why her husband has been disappearing and reappearing, what The Database really is, and how it affects Josephine and Joseph's future. Eventually, we learn exactly what The Person with Bad Breath meant when she told Josephine, "Remember, you need the Database as much as the Database needs you!" The focus of the story moves slowly from the drone vs. company emphasis of the early chapters to the specific details of Josephine and Joseph's lives and the love between them that safeguards them from the surreal strangeness that threatens to engulf them.

     In the final pages, Josephine learns that some seemingly small, but ultimately life-changing, errors have put her and Joseph at the intersection of two horrific versions of their own futures. As I turned that last page, I felt as if I had awakened, fuzzy-minded, from a fever dream that wouldn't let me go. To paraphrase Melville, "Ah, Josephine! Ah, humanity!"

     This is an enthralling, quick read featuring a sympathetic heroine and an eerie workplace that will send chills down your spine. If you are looking for a surreal take on modern life in the city, give this one a try. Click HERE to go to this book's page, where you can read or listen to an excerpt by clicking either on the cover art or the "Listen" icon. 

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