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The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips

The Beautiful Bureaucrat (2015)

by Helen Phillips

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3074555,221 (3.26)16
  1. 10
    Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters by Mark Dunn (4leschats)
    4leschats: Similar aspects of word play demonstrate how the abstract nature of language creates, alters, and describes our concrete experiences.
  2. 00
    Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy (wandering_star)
    wandering_star: A similar tone - someone trapped in a surreal world.
  3. 00
    Delicious Foods by James Hannaham (sparemethecensor)
  4. 00
    The Castle by Franz Kafka (4leschats)
    4leschats: Both deal with the surreality and dehumanization of bureaucracy which arbitrarily decides life and death

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» See also 16 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 45 (next | show all)
A very quick read. I finished this in just over 24 hours. The symbolism is heavy-handed, but I enjoyed the story overall. It definitely speaks to the stage I am at in life (although I don't want kids). It also made me want to read Kafka. I am interested to read whatever Phillips writes next. ( )
  xiaomarlo | Apr 17, 2019 |
The part of me that loves Murakami really loved the prose this book created and the feel of some of the images and the hint of magical realism. This is the kind of world that Murakami would create, except instead of punking out in under 200 pages, he would have given his characters more depth and expanded the plot further. Sure, it would resolve with Josephine talking to a manic pixie dream teen or a cat in perhaps an alternate universe, but Phillips' prose and initial thought suggest she is the type of writer who could work with that. So this is a frustrating book BECAUSE it could have been a much better book instead of "New York is tedious and expensive/office jobs are shitty and opaque/you can't mess with The Plan, man". So in short, Phillips has the talent to write a better version of this book, but I might wait on her until she has the strength to maintain this type of delicate prose-driven magical realism over a longer, thornier stretch of plot. ( )
  jeninmotion | Sep 24, 2018 |
Most people will be able to relate to the themes of Helen Phillips's thriller-like existential drama which hinges, as the title suggests, on the debilitating, and dangerous, aspects of bureaucracy. Josephine, long unemployed and wearied by unemployment is interviewed at a faceless company by a faceless interviewer (known only as the Person With Bad Breath) for a dull, data-entry job that is never fully explained and which she encouraged not to question. In her grimy, featureless office, surrounded by locked doors, floors she cannot access and a mostly hidden workforce it is clear that whatever her job is it must contribute to some lurking horror. We know this because we easily recognise the genre.

Phillips's satire of recognisably dull lives and the attempt (and in this case, failure) to offset unfulfilling jobs with meaningful home-lives effectively sets up an atmosphere of uncertainty and trepidation by emphasising the isolating tenancies of bureaucracy - the anonymity, the monotony, the ignorance of how a simple task fits into the bigger picture. There is the sense of being trapped. Josephine's featureless office, her limited contact with colleagues, the homogeneity of the few people she encounters - the nightmare of the faceless world - in contrast to the run-down sublets she is forced to occupy with her husband. Places where they struggle to stamp their own personalities over the eccentricities (and squalor) of previous tenants. It draws on classic tales of individual pawns playing unwittingly into large situations they do not understand and the fear of anonymous institutions with extensive and invasive control of individuals.

The influence of Orwell and Kafka is very clear but while their features as classics of the genre are also present here there is little of novelty added in The Beautiful Bureaucrat and it lacks their sustained, deepening menace. The characters have little nuance and are wholly defined by predictable characteristics. In many cases this is certainly deliberate, the Person With Bad Breath is a classic drone; nameless, sexless, with no distinguishing features except a tendency to halitosis, totally dehumanised and defined by his/her role in the company. However this lack of depth also extends to the rest of the cast, despite attempts to dress them up - Trishiffany's ridiculous name, her colourful outfits and brash personality and the overabundance of perky adjectives used to describe her. Even Josephine and Joseph, while they exhibit more personality than the others, do not feel fully developed and lack any real psychological depth. Perhaps this is the point and Phillips's message is that, whatever we believe and however we protest, underneath we are all really as faceless as the Person With Bad Breath or have the potential to become so.

Unfortunately, this lack of depth is a weakness which extends to her unsettling but underdeveloped world. The tension set up in the initial encounters between Josephine and her new situation drains away even as the action itself. The characters' actions and motivations are predictable, they never do anything unexpected and in the end the "big reveal", the answer to what the work of Phillips's every-couple really is, isn't particularly surprising or particularly original. Perhaps the abundance of such tales have simply made us too adept at joining the dots and guessing the conspiracy but the failure to subvert the best-known tropes of the genre creates an oddly impotent tale.
( )
1 vote moray_reads | Mar 20, 2018 |
so weird ( )
  BefuddledPanda | Dec 4, 2017 |
The Beautiful Bureaucrat made me laugh on the first page with its description of Josephine’s unfortunate interviewer (I won’t spoil it for you). Josephine wouldn’t, ordinarily, want to work in this rather unprepossessing office, entering a single figure per record time after time in a database, but she and her husband have moved to the city because of an economic crisis and have been forced to lower their sights.

It was easy to identify with Josephine and her husband Joseph – it brings back memories of crappy temp jobs when you perform apparently meaningless tasks over and over with no context or sense of purpose, before returning home to a grotty tenancy, hoping that this is not forever but just the route to a better life. The difficulties for Josephine are lightened by her strong relationship with Joseph, his humour and the small pleasures they find in the everyday.

Despite this, the job does undermine Josephine’s confidence and her identity. There are some nice vignettes highlighting the small humiliations and odd rituals of office life, the stock characters who apparently find this bizarre world normal and comprehensible. Then Joseph starts to behave oddly too, and she begins to question the purpose of her work.

After a promising start, my interest wavered. Although this is a short book it felt too long. The relationship between Joseph and Josephine, which at first was kooky and endearing became too much, like a couple who use their pet names in public. They have little shared games such as wordplay which, endlessly repeated, grate. The mystery around Josephine’s job takes a fairly predictable trajectory and I felt at the end that I hadn’t really learnt anything.

I’m also a bit weary of the trope that administrators are soulless and sinister. Without administration, nothing gets done. What about a book about the quiet heroism of the office manager, coordinating resources and people and systems in a game of three-dimensional chess, leaving the neurosurgeon or maverick entrepreneur or touring orchestra free to shine?

I liked the quirky prose and odd perspective of The Beautiful Bureaucrat so would probably read something else by the author but this feels like it needs more substance and fewer words.
I received a copy of The Beautiful Bureaucrat from the publisher via Netgalley.
This review first appeared on my blog https://katevane.com/blog ( )
  KateVane | Sep 30, 2017 |
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The person who interviewed her had no face.
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Becoming increasingly uneasy about suspicious activities at a new job she felt lucky to land, Josephine makes a terrible realization and is forced to confront dangerous and powerful elements in order to protect her loved ones.

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