Here’s what I love about absurdism in literature: It’s a fun way to discuss the terrible things in life. Helen Phillips’s short and propulsive debut novel, The Beautiful Bureaucrat, is a gorgeous example of the stark and spare absurdist genre, a place most gorgeously inhabited by the Russian greats (Zamyatin, Bulgakov, Nabokov). There’s a love story here as big and shadowy as the one in Master and Margarita; there’s also a deft skewering of the American job market that parallels the helplessness within Invitation to a Beheading. Phillips doesn’t stop there, however, and that’s what makes BB so genius. This offbeat tale, with its dingy sublets, halitosis-plagued bosses and co-working doppelgängers, transcends the political and the relational altogether. This is a novel about our very transitoriness.
The story opens with a job interview. The “perfectly average” heroine Josephine answers the questions of a gray-faced man who she refers to as The Person with Bad Breath. Her initial impression, despite noting his robotic featureless-ness, is one of triumph: “Oh, perfect, the interviewer’s appearance probably deterred the other applicants!” She’s clearly desperate for a job. We glean quite a lot about her from the interview: she is newly married to a man named Joseph; she wants children; she’s only been in the city for a few difficult months. She’s hired on the spot.
The job is easy, if not a little boring: Josephine inputs names and numbers into The Database, an index whose purpose utterly eludes her. The work is at times soothing, but the pleasure of her new routine is always short-lived.
…here she sat at this desk like the captain of a tiny ship; she knew what to do and how to do it; she was well-hydrated. Tonight, after completing her allotted tasks in a methodical fashion, she would go home to [Joseph]. The money was mounting in their little bank account, which had hovered right around zero for so many months. This was a life; it was a life; it was her life. These tranquilizing thoughts carried her through the day until midafternoon, when she glanced up to find The Person with Bad Breath standing quietly in her doorway.
There is a purity in Phillips’s writing, an unruffled precision that ferries us smoothly from comfort to unsettledness and back again. More tension accrues when Josephine notices scratch-marks on the “ill-colored” walls of her work station, and when Joseph fails to appear in their apartment one evening. Her alternating confidence and uneasiness is wonderfully paced, similar to Shirley Jackson’s unspooling of Eleanor Vance in The Haunting of Hill House.
This novel really is a masterpiece of contrasts. When the gray tones of the office space become too stifling, Phillips ushers in the novel’s namesake, the beautiful bureaucrat, herself. Trishiffany is “a petite bright-blond,” perpetually upbeat, wearing at their initial meeting “a bubble-gum pink suit straining against disproportionately large breasts.” She’s a foil to the “half-dead” Person with Bad Breath, and she gives the impression that the only people who can thrive in the dullsville repetition of the American workplace are the obnoxiously optimistic.
“Let me know if you need a free hug,” Trishiffany said. “I’m all about the free hug, you know? The other day I saw a guy on the subway holding a sign that said FREE HUG, and I was all about that.”
Despite Trishiffany’s affectionate nature, her bloodshot eyes hint at her industriousness, her dedication to the job above all else. Like The Person with Bad Breath and the concrete walls of the building, something about her is profoundly amiss. She provides a menacing comic relief, hanging over Josephine’s disquietude like a piñata at a funeral.
The contrasts occur outside of the work space, too. When the squalor of their ever-changing sublets teeters on the melodramatic, Phillips penetrates the gloom with a tender scene between Joseph and Josephine. The presence of children glimmers in these moments, suffusing the impoverished landscape with hope.
She bit into a fig, watched a pair of swans glide luminous in the transformative white light of sundown. One by one the pinkish lamps alongside the lake clicked on. The city was so generous sometimes…
Two kids rolled shrieking down the little incline behind the bench, their skin golden and grass-marked in the lamplight…
“Crazy little zombie bambis,” Joseph said.
It’s a literal breath of fresh air from the parade of cockroach- and ooze-infested apartments they’ve rented. It allows us to surface, too, as readers, to understand the motives of the main characters. This is a couple searching for stability and security. They ache for the chance to expand on their tiny family. Yet while there are moments of clear adoration between them, they also struggle to connect. Some of the blame can be put on their new jobs. Some of it, though, is due to Joseph’s secrecy, and to Josephine’s lack of agency. When he gives her a pomegranate one evening, I couldn’t help but think of Persephone; I wondered how much of Josephine’s marriage is a trap of her own making. This does not, of course, take away from the beauty of the love story at hand. Isn’t every relationship ultimately a choice, a commitment that involves, to some extent, blind trust?
The tension between the “JoJos” and the tension between Josephine and her workplace makes for a wickedly suspenseful read, but it wasn’t just the book’s plot that wowed me. Phillips plays with language in a way that serves both characterization and plot, showcasing her inimitable wit. In the beginning of the book, wordplay and anagrams become a way for the couple to share an experience, and it indicates their mutual tenderness.
“Diagnostic Laboratory,” he said. “Agnostic Laboratory.” He was looking at the diagnostic laboratory across the street. A truck had just parked in front, blocking the “Di.” Their favorite kind of coincidence. “Good eyes,” she complimented.
As the novel and Josephine’s isolation progress, the anagrams take over Josephine’s internal monologue, and they alternately comfort and plague her:
The ceiling began to undulate.
Do la nu.
Laud tuna nut.
A dune lute.
“Please,” Josephine begged. “Silencio!”
Ice in sol.
Lice is no!
The anagrams hit a fever pitch as Josephine’s dread rises, but Phillips wisely deflates their presence before it becomes too overwhelming for the reader (which it nearly does, toward the book’s end). Their eventual silence is another plot point, a suggestion that an irreparable change has overcome Josephine, for better or worse. How perfect is it that in an absurdist novel the language, itself, should rebel and issue its own absurdism? It’s a technique Beckett and Nabokov would resoundingly applaud.
The humor and the seriousness in an absurdist story build a tension that carries the entire world within it. Phillips pulls this off seamlessly. And like all of the very best absurdist works,The Beautiful Bureaucrat delivers a chilling blow at its end by showing how very much you, as the reader, are implicated in the story. It left me blinking at the wall with the book still in hand, meditating on the eventual end of all that I love, and yet I felt very much that the journey to this heavy revelation was the farthest thing possible from a chore. Rather, it was a joy, darkness and terror and all.
Author of Favorite Monster: Stories and The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac.
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