Part dystopian fantasy, part thriller, part giddy literary-nerd wordplay, Helen Phillips' "The Beautiful Bureaucrat," is both a page-turner and a novel rich in evocative, starkly philosophical language. That's a rare combination, recalling work such as Margaret Atwood's "MaddAddam" and "Positron" series, if lacking Atwood's psychological depth.
Josephine is a married woman in her early 30s who after a long bout of unemployment is hired by an unnamed Person With Bad Breath at a mammoth corporation, where she is assigned confusing and mind-numbing data entry, the purpose of which is unknown to her. Although Josephine and her husband, Joseph, appear in many ways to be typical modern casualties of any big city (they are evicted early in the novel; their sublet is comedically abysmal), small hints indicate early on that their world is not quite ours.
At first, these touches are ambiguously light (people know Josephine's name or details of her life without her having told them; every woman she meets at the corporation looks almost exactly like her), and curiosity about this odd world is part of what propels the reader through early pages, when it's not clear what else is at stake for the young couple.
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Josephine has been explicitly instructed not to discuss her work with Joseph, so she lives for their tender, simple evenings of cooking paltry meals and sleeping together on a dingy mattress, holding fast to the fantasy that they will somehow become solvent enough to have a child. Their love and their obstacles seem realistic enough at first, right down to the cheap Virgin Mary candles ("The place smelled like wax and warm butter. In the galley kitchen, Joseph was boiling spaghetti by candlelight"), evocative of a newly urban hipster.
Yet the humorously bizarre touches begin to add up, becoming increasingly ominous. Joseph keeps disappearing for prolonged, unexplained periods. Soon, we understand that the Database that is giving Josephine perpetually bloodshot eyes and bad skin is more than just a metaphor for urban angst in a bad economy and that something truly surreal and deeply threatening is at play.
This slim novel, which can easily be devoured in a day, doesn't always live up to Phillips' great ambitions. A master of pacing, she shifts into ever-higher gears of suspense (and menacing creepiness) at quick enough intervals that the reader may not quite notice holes in plot or character … or, more accurately, "Bureaucrat" gets away with certain would-be weaknesses by making them part of the novel's intentional fabric. Josephine and Joseph, right down to their matching names, are so clearly an Every Couple that Phillips can hardly be faulted for not really developing them with much complexity; all aspects of Josephine's work are supposed to be wildly confusing to her, so Phillips eschews having to fully delineate precisely how the Database or company functions or by what rules this surreal world governs itself.
Although these issues don't spoil the buzzy pleasures of the read, they do change the reading experience. One thinks of other genre-benders such as Audrey Niffenegger's "The Time Traveler's Wife" — a novel wherein the rules are so intricately drawn that a reader can easily deliver a three-hour talk afterward on precisely how time travel functions in that world. The threads of "The Beautiful Bureaucrat" fail to tie together as coherently, Phillips' approach being more akin to the magical realism of Kafka, Gabriel García Márquez or Aimee Bender, wherein someone simply wakes up a bug, falls to earth with wings or has a hole where his stomach used to be, and there is no need to explain how such a thing is possible or how the mechanism of it functions logically.
The difference, however, is that in such work there is usually no mystery to piece together: Things simply are. Phillips, by contrast, relies heavily on the reader solving the mystery alongside Josephine, even though in the end there is much that remains largely opaque.
"The Beautiful Bureaucrat" is a novel more concerned with revelation than depth. But what is most impressive here is that Phillips has taken plot-twist epiphanies that are hardly new, in either literature or Hollywood, and delivered eerie, stomach-dropping surprises even to those who may believe they have it figured out. Although the somewhat stridently self-conscious wordplay drags the pace more than its final payoff reaps, this novel ultimately proves both clever and impossible to put down.
The Beautiful Bureaucrat
Henry Holt: 180 pp., $25