CULTURE & ARTS
08/06/2015 11:36 am ET Updated Jul 18, 2016

The Bottom Line: 'The Beautiful Bureaucrat' By Helen Phillips

Your office job is a horrific dystopia in this uncanny new novel.
Henry Holt

What is the deal with the office? The inexorable rise of the office workspace has occasioned an almost bizarre level of cultural fascination with the environment. “Dilbert.” “The Office” (U.K.). “The Office” (U.S.). “Better Off Ted.” “Office Space.” Recently, an Australian teenager created a Facebook group called Generic Office Roleplay meant to, as Digg put it, “ridicule the banality of office life.” The group quickly exploded in popularity.

Fiction, never the last to arrive, has taken its own cracks at office culture -- think of Joshua Ferris’ dark office comedy And Then We Came To The End, which crystallizes the temporary hive-mind that can arise in workplaces through use of a collective first-person narrator. Think of Dave Eggers’ The Circle, which dramatizes the creep of new tech conglomerates, like Google, from the inside.

There’s something different, however, about Helen Phillips’s debut novel, The Beautiful Bureaucrat, something a little more uncanny and Kafkaesque. Even her insistent use of the vaguely antiquated term “bureaucrat” instead of the more casually dismissive “office drone” or “pencil-pusher” imbues the enigmatic employees who lurk amid her halls with an alien mystique. What’s more, it subtly reminds us that these cheese-sandwich-eating, brown-cardigan-wearing employees comprise something far more powerful and recognizable than their individual roles: a bureaucracy.

We enter this bureaucracy with our heroine, drab and desperate Josephine. She and her husband, Joseph, have recently moved to the city from what they term “the hinterland” in hopes of finding decent work. Joseph has only recently found an office job while Josephine has been searching for months. Interviewed by a featureless, impersonal administrator with halitosis so pungent no number of breath mints can quell it, Josephine leaps at the job she’s offered despite the life-sapping atmosphere, off-putting supervisor, and demanding yet dull data entry work.

“The person who interviewed her had no face." -Helen Phillips

Day after day, Josephine sits alone in a dingy, claustrophobic room, checking a searchable Database against stacks of files in her inbox, adding a date to each Database entry for each file checked. The file, aside from a name at the top, contains nothing but strings of incoherent numbers and letters, which she’s instructed to ignore. The task is an office worker’s nightmare; no wonder Josephine starts to notice, uneasily, claw marks on the wall.

In the grungy, infested sublets she and Joseph take shelter in, she thinks she can leave the office behind -- relax into the uplifting love they share and allow his small gestures (candles with dinner, a specially prepared dinner) to wash away the bone-deep unease of the work day. When Joseph himself starts to pull away, finally not coming home one night, it seems as though the rot of her office is taking hold of every part of her life. She’s pursued at every sublet by missed package delivery notifications from an unknown sender. She suspects she’s being followed. Finally, desperate, Josephine realizes the chilling truth behind her mundane data entry work, and must resort to unforeseeable extremes to salvage her life and the life of the one she loves most.

The Beautiful Bureaucrat is the sort of odd, sly, chameleonic novel that vexes genre categorizers and draws comparisons to Atwood and Murakami. It satirizes office culture to the point of horror; it draws us into a heartfelt love story; it creates an alternative, sci-fi-inflected universe that sounds a lot like Brooklyn, if Brooklyn had more creepy secret technologies. (Or does it??) Phillips plays with language, with the anagrams and words-within-words that show meaning can be hidden in plain sight. By turns, the novel is goofily funny, creepy and unsettling, life-affirming and sweet, deeply thoughtful and pointedly critical of modern workplace culture.

The Beautiful Bureaucrat is the sort of odd, sly, chameleonic novel that vexes genre categorizers and draws comparisons to Atwood and Murakami.

It also vacillates between tonal perfection and unexpected off-key notes. Josephine, a classic everywoman, typically thinks and speaks in a relatable mode, a warm, awkward human thrust into a coldly analytical world. She defies her supervisor to tack up a calendar on the wall, a pathetic gesture at personalizing her space familiar to any cubicle-dweller. When Joseph doesn’t come home, she leaves him a voicemail informing him she’s “kind of freaking out.” Yet Josephine’s very first voiced thought, “Oh, perfect, the interviewer’s appearance probably deterred other applicants!” reads falsely as a real, human inner voice. The line, structured more for exposition than inner reflection and verbalized in crisp, narration-style language, strikes a clunky note all the more jarring in the midst of an alluring first page. Phillips usually handles more deftly the challenge of humanizing her protagonist in the midst of such a distorted, inhuman alternate world. 

The slim, conceptual novel also confronts a dilemma of the form: How to resolve the narrative conflict without collapsing the complexity of the central conceit? At times Phillips’s denouement does seem rushed, a flattening of the uncanny world she’s created into a suspense thriller chase scene. Resolution, not ambiguity, takes the lead toward the finish line, though it doesn’t dim the lingering, unsettling images of modern soulless bureaucracy Phillips so masterfully brings to life. And perhaps, after all, the world is much simpler than we'd like to think it is, she seems to suggest. That might be the most profound and horrifying conclusion of all.

The Bottom Line:

A strange, yet unsettlingly resonant, fable that melds mystery, sci-fi, romance and satire to chillingly skewer the modern workplace yet somehow leave us reaffirmed in our humanity. 

Who wrote it?

Helen Phillips is the author of a book of short stories, And Yet They Were Happy. Her short fiction has appeared in Tin House, BOMB and more, and she’s been awarded a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award and the Italo Calvino Prize. An assistant professor of creative writing at Brooklyn College, she was inspired to write The Beautiful Bureaucrat, her debut novel, by her experiences at a data-entry job.

What other reviewers think:

The New York Times: “Helen Phillips deftly interrogates this existential divide in her riveting, drolly surreal debut novel, The Beautiful Bureaucrat.”

The New Republic: “In Helen Phillips’s debut novel, The Beautiful Bureaucrat, the drama isn’t interpersonal -- it’s driven by the enigmatic nature of work itself. Equal parts mystery, thriller, and existential inquiry, Phillips’s book evokes the menace of the mundane.”

Who will read it?

Fans of literary science fiction, conceptual literature and suspense, particularly readers who love Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami and similar writers.

Opening lines:

“The person who interviewed her had no face. Under other circumstances -- if the job market hadn’t been so bleak for so long, if the summer hadn’t been so glum and muggy -- this might have discouraged Josephine from stepping through the door of that office in the first place. But as things were, her initial thought was: Oh, perfect, the interviewer’s appearance probably deterred other applicants!

Notable passage:

“‘The work suits you, does it not?’ The Person with Bad Breath said.

Emboldened by this note of kindness, by the slight vulnerability evident in the fact that her boss’s shirt collar had flipped up in the back and was not lying impeccably beneath the gray jacket, Josephine found herself confessing: ‘I wonder about them.’

‘About whom?’ The Person with Bad Breath inquired, as though it wasn’t obvious. ‘Oh, them.’ Now moving for the door, reaching for the knob, almost gone. ‘It is better never to wonder about them.’”

The Beautiful Bureaucrat
by Helen Phillips
Henry Holt, $25.00
Publishes Aug. 11, 2015

The Bottom Line is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

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