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Helen Phillips

Helen Phillips is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer's Award and the Italo Calvino Prize, among others. Her collection, And Yet They Were Happy, was also a finalist for the McLaughlin-Esstman-Stearns Prize, and her work has been featured on NPR's Selected Shorts and appeared in Tin House, Electric Literature, Slice, BOMB, PEN America, and Mississippi Review. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Brooklyn College and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and children.

Blurbs

“Told with the light touch of a Calvino and the warm heart of a Saramago, this brief fable-novel is funny, sad, scary, and beautiful. I love it.”

– Ursula K. Le Guin

“A satisfying parable of love and life, death and birth, and the travails of transposed numbers. The Beautiful Bureaucrat reads like a thriller.”

– Joshua Ferris

“The Beautiful Bureaucrat is a thrillingly original debut, formally inventive and emotionally complex. Helen Phillips is one of the most exciting young writers working today, and I envy those who get to discover her work here for the first time.”

– Jenny Offill

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The Beautiful Bureaucrat

The Power of the Alien Cohort

03/14/16

What I found perhaps most impressive about The Beautiful Bureaucrat is the way in which Helen Phillips navigates the difficult business of making a surreal reality feel realistic and credible in a real-ish world. In this briskly plotted and thrilling novel, Josephine and Joseph Newbury are a pair of newlyweds who have recently moved from the “hinterlands” (“hinterland, hint of land, the term they used to dismiss their birthplaces, that endless suburban non-ness”) to a city reminiscent of Brooklyn, although it is never called that. After months of unemployment, Josephine has finally landed a job. But right from the very beginning things are not as they should be. For one thing, Josephine’s boss has no face. (“The person who interviewed her had no face” is the first line of the book.) And what’s more, this person (of indeterminate gender) has the worst breath Josephine has ever smelled. Hitherto, he/she is referred to simply as The Person With Bad Breath. Following a series of uncomfortable and inappropriate questions (“Does it bother you that your husband has such a commonplace name?” “You wish to procreate?”) Josephine is led to a small box of an office, with “pinkish clawed walls,” where she enters a jumble of indecipherable names and dates into a mysterious system known as the Database. It is a mind-numbing task that Josephine is neither encouraged to understand nor question.

Helen Phillips writes with a wonderful accuracy about the doldrums of office life. “It was wise to put bureaucrats in windowless offices,” she observes. “Had there been a window, September might have taunted her with its high and mighty goldenness. As it was… she spent the rest of the workday blasting through files, devoid of curiosity, dying to get the hell home and just be a person with Joseph.” The mysterious agency where Josephine works is located in a “vast, windowless” complex that stretches endlessly down a block; the concrete halls, punctuated at regular intervals by closed doors, drone with buzzing typewriters, an anxious noise that reminds Josephine of scurrying cockroaches. “So, what do you do for work,” a person asks Josephine at one point. “Such an uncouth, painful question,” Phillips writes. For anyone who has ever worked at a soul-crushing office job, these observations ring horribly (and hilariously) true.

On nearly every page, I found myself marveling at the deft touch and careful craftsmanship with which Phillips omits and reveals, elaborates and elides. Such is the case with Trishiffany, whose very name (“My parents couldn’t pick between Trisha and Tiffany”) is an example of what I mean. Aside from the Person with Bad Breath, Trishiffany is the only one of Josephine’s “busy lookalike bureaucrats” to have a significant role in the book. She looks like a Barbie, wears “bubble-gum” pink suits, and always seems to appear out of nowhere. She also seems to know more about Josephine than Josephine reveals. The first time they meet, for instance, Trishiffany asks, “Mind if I call you Jojo? I’ve always wanted to call someone that. Such a cute nickname for Josephine!” It is only later that Josephine realizes “she hadn’t told Trishiffany her name.”

There are literally dozens of instances like this throughout the novel, which skips from one strange incident to the next, such as when Josephine enters her boss’s office to find The Person with Bad Breath sitting at a desk “covered with a white tablecloth and set for an elaborate luncheon for two.” “The table is set for you, Ms. Newbury,” The Person with Bad Breath says. “I have been awaiting you.” As the luncheon unfolds, The Person with Bad Breath behaves in an increasingly bizarre fashion, monologuing about cats, devouring Josephine’s pumpkin pie, swallowing shakers of salt and pepper, licking “pats of butter off their foil wrappers,” drinking the “remainder of the cream straight from the pitcher.” It is remarkable that Phillips is able to get away with this. But she does, time and again, by telling the reader just enough to make things plausible before wisely moving on, with a sort of dream logic or fairytale momentum, as though the bewildering were the most normal thing in the world. She plays a straight-faced game, and for that reason the surreal-within-the-real works absolutely.

In addition to the strangeness and corporate satire, The Beautiful Bureaucrat abounds with allusions and symbols. A neighbor’s three-headed dog snarls and barks in one of the many hellish sublets the Newburys rent, reminding us of Cerberus. Is there really a three-headed dog, or are Josephine’s tired eyes simply imagining things? Phillips never clarifies. But this strange detail, along with so many others, entices and unnerves, lingers and haunts. Phillips knows this, and she uses the ambiguity to create a mounting sense of unease. Pomegranates play a key role, recalling the Myth of Persephone. And there is plenty of religious symbology: Virgin Mary candles, everything in sixes, sevens, and threes. It can’t be a coincidence that Joseph wants a baby.

Beyond the allegory and satire, however, there is a beating heart, and Phillips is at her best and most sincere when portraying the Newburys' fledgling marriage, the mundane intimacies and small heartbreaks of which will be recognizable to anyone who has ever been in a meaningful relationship. In one passage, Josephine returns home from work, and Joseph says, “You look like you need a hug.” “She felt like an alien,” Phillips writes. “As though she had never before been exposed to the ways things are done on Earth: that you can return home to someone who cares for you, that a few overused words can hurt your heart with their appropriateness, that your muscles can soften into the muscles of another human being… She wanted to cry out when he pulled away from her.” This was the most winning aspect of the novel for me. As I read, I found myself desiring my other, as Josephine, in her loneliness, desires Joseph; and in the end, I was left with a heightened awareness of the power and importance of having a partner—an “alien cohort”—in this strange and often bewildering world.

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