4 Stars - Highly Recommended, a great example of a small press author who maintains her style as she publishes with the big boys
Publisher: Henry Holt/Macmillian
Releases: August 2015
I first read Helen Phillips back in 2011, when she released And Yet They Were Happy with Leapfrog Press, a collection of two-page long vignettes that told the story of a recently married couple as they attempt to build their home among all sorts of natural and supernatural disasters. I was quite taken with her surrealist approach to fiction at the time, so when I heard that Helen's The Beautiful Bureaucrat was picked up by a big presser, naturally I was thrilled for her. And upon cracking open the review copy, I saw that, not only had she maintained her refreshing approach to fiction, but her style, entirely more narrative and linear, had also become wonderfully more enigmatic and elusive.
Here we are introduced to a (different) young married couple who are fighting the 'unemployment woes' - bouncing from skanky sublet apartment to even more skanky sublet apartment as they struggle to grow roots in a new, unnamed city. Joseph and Josephine (how incredibly adorable and simultaneously boring is it that they have matching names?) are your typical, run-of-the-mill, cutesy couple. They make the best of the worst situations. They play anagram games with language to keep themselves occupied. It's not long before Josephine manages to land a job at a strange office complex inputting strings of numbers into a Database in a dreary, windowless room. Thrilled to have a steady paycheck, she doesn't ask many questions of her nameless, faceless, halitosis-breathed boss or her new cringe-inducing, barbified work-pal Trishiffany. But as time passes, and the gray files continue to pile up, her curiosity gets the best of her and she begins sneaking around the hallways, knocking on locked doors, and walking into the complex through different entryways, trying to determine just what it is she and the other bloodshot-eyed bureaucrats do each day.
I love how Helen uses language to tease and taunt her readers. Some early reviews are not fans of her withholding essential background and personal details, but I can appreciate her need to limit our scope strictly to the narrator's close third person perspective. Main characters are practically two-dimensional, reduced to their most defining characteristics (her boss, for example, aka Person with Bad Breath) and the workplace conversations Josephine finds herself involved in begin to grow increasingly more bizarre as the story unfolds.
The frustration I first felt regarding Josephine's initial blase approach towards the situations she finds herself in quickly gave way to a shared confusion. Is she losing her mind? Why are her boss and co-workers so enigmatic? Can the numbers buried within those files mean what she's beginning to believe they mean? And what of her husband's recent disappearances?
Fans of Amelia Gray's Threats, Jac Jemc's My Only Wife, and Saramago's All the Names will most definitely appreciate The Beautiful Bureaucrat. This crafty little novel hides more within its slim pages than initially meets the eye. Don't let Josephine's humdrum dead-end data entry job lull you to sleep, my pretties. Prepare to be slapped awake by the realization that nothing is what it seems. THis is a rabbit hole you won't easily climb your way out of. Remember, the database will always be updated. The data will be entered. And once you start, stopping is not allowed. all wowed. a lo wed. all dowed. dead wall.