The Beautiful Bureaucrat: Helen Phillips

★★★

Helen Phillips’s novel is a curious blend of existentialist thriller, dystopian sci-fi and morality fable, which nevertheless has its roots firmly in the present. Our protagonists, Josephine and Joseph, are a newly-married couple suffering all the problems of modern youth: a sluggish job market; debts; a lack of self-confidence; and a life that seems to be on hold. Desperate to take charge of things, they move into a series of squalid sublets while they hunt for work. And yet, when they do both find jobs, something begins to prey on Josephine’s mind. Something, in this long, hot summer, just isn’t quite right.

Josephine wants to make a good impression in her job, but the environment is stultifying and grim. Her office building is a vast, featureless block; her nondescript boss has bad breath; the endless corridors are lined with closed doors; and her fellow employees are all cut from the same faded, average cloth. They spend all their time cloistered in their offices, sunk beneath the insistent clatter of keyboards, or whisking busily out of sight around distant corners. There’s no canteen, no vending machines. The only person Josephine sees is exuberant, girly Trishiffany from Processing Errors, who always seems to run into her just when she needs a boost. And that becomes more and more frequent. For eight hours a day Josephine inputs data on a spreadsheet, cross-checking against complex forms full of a jumble of meaningless letters and numbers. There is little feedback from her boss; no explanation; no sense of what she’s doing.

As Josephine’s office grows more stifling, her home life becomes more bizarre. Joseph’s job is taking a toll on him: he becomes febrile and offhand by turns; and some nights he doesn’t come home at all. Trapped in her grim basement sublet by night; trapped in her windowless office by day, Josephine feels panic rising within her. And, when the true nature of her work dawns on her, she’s horrified. Something must be done. But what?

This book certainly isn’t a conventional thriller, but it does a great job of slowly building a foreboding atmosphere. It feels like a literary version of those dreams one has, in which one’s trapped in a strange building, full of corridors with locked doors, with no way out. It’s a story of human agency fighting back against the faceless bureaucracy of life, I suppose, but it comes leavened with speculative elements that give it a very unique flavour. Some aspects, such as Josephine’s insistent inner wordplay, do begin to grate a little over time, but they help to emphasise the amorphous, almost otherworldly quality of her surroundings. I do wonder whether the story might have worked even better as a novella rather than a short novel, distilling that unease into a less diluted, punchier package. Yet the book still has an impact: it lingers, discreetly troubling, at the back of your mind for a long time after you finish reading.

Recommended for those looking for something a bit different to spice their summer reading, this is a very timely novel about the way the System tries to control those of us tangled in its clutches, and how we can fight for autonomy. Press reviews have been very enthusiastic, while I feel that little bit more guarded; but I’ll be very interested to hear what others think. Do share your feelings if you’ve read it!

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I received this book from Pushkin Press in return for a fair and honest review

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