The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips

What the hell did I just read? Yes, I know it was The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips… but… What. The. Actual. Hell? And I mean that in a good way.

“…sign here, 9.00 a.m. Monday, and off she went, employed, regurgitated by the concrete compound out into the receding day.”

This short novel focuses on the newly employed Josephine, whose task it is to enter endless strings of numbers into something known only as the Database. Her oppressive office (room 9997), the faceless bureaucracy and her somewhat strained marriage is set against an eerily cold and impersonal city.

“Every morning the Database awaited her like a living thing, luminous and familiar, alongside stacks of gray files. It was wise to put bureaucrats in windowless offices; had there been a window, September might have taunted her with its high and mighty goldenness.”

Josephine soon realises that the numbers she has to enter into the Database add up to something significant… Da da daaaaaa!

This is like Dr Seuss for adults – the writing is topsy-turvy, jittery and thoroughly unnerving. Sentences don’t end the way you expect them to and things aren’t where they belong (including Josephine’s thoughts).

“They walked in the direction opposite the above-ground subway track and eventually came to the park. “

“There was maybe the shuffle of papers or the shuffle of phone being returned to pocket, maybe the hiss of a swan or a woman or a heater…”

Phillips peppers the text with anagrams, adding to the crazy –

“…she complained about the vermin in the subway, the savagery of this city. Save age. Savant airy. ‘Hello?’ she muttered. Eel ho.”

And references to things that seem old-fashioned and quaint jostle against the futuristic – ‘lavender candies’ and the ‘hinterland’, a character named Trishiffany in a bubblegum-pink ball gown working with beige bureaucrats in brown cardigans. It makes for disconcerting reading.

“Late in the night – after they’d bought lightbulbs at a bodega…”

“Walking outside in the sun made Josephine feel immaculate. Peppermint ice cream and sleeping for eight hours and not having to touch any gray files and giving dollar bills to subway violinists and drinking big glasses of water and buying a 50% off wall calendar of nature scenes from the hinterland.”

4.5/5 It’s terribly clever, not my usual thing at all and I couldn’t put it down.

I received my copy of The Beautiful Bureaucrat from the publisher, Henry Holt & Company via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Josephine struggles with a cheese sandwich at lunchtime.

“At noon she sat at her desk, eating a cheese-and-mustard sandwich. The sandwich was soggy, falling apart, virtually inedible, yet she never let things go to waste. The lonesomeness of a bureaucrat’s lunch.”

I wouldn’t struggle with this cheese sandwich. (it’s from Grilled Cheese Social, which is probably the best blog name ever).


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