Review: The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips


The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips hits a little too close to home for me. Not that I’m beautiful, or a bureaucrat, but like the protagonist Josephine I feel trapped in a job and a world that make no sense, and that seem guided by mysterious and sinister forces. I sometimes wonder if my friends and family have been humoring me for years, amused by my delusion that my life is meaningful and productive. Josephine’s story made me a little queasy with its familiarity. Maybe my state of mind made me particularly susceptible to this book, but it’s a testament to the power of the author’s talent that it made me as uncomfortable as it did. 

Ms. Phillips uses her gift for language to heighten the feelings of disconnect for the reader: Josephine works for The Person with Bad Breath; runs from The Man in the Gray Sweatshirt; comes from The Hinterlands; works on The Database.

In spite of the facade of emotional remoteness, this story contains one of the most thoughtful descriptions of love I’ve ever read:

“Only their two minds in the entire universe contained the same specific set of images: a particular pattern of shadow on the ceiling above a bed, a particular loop of highway ramp circled just as a song about a circle began to play on the radio. Tens of thousands of conversations and jokes. Without him she was just a lonely brain hurtling through space, laughing quietly to itself.”

An obvious love of language provides counterweight to the ominous tone of the book.There’s a fascination with words – both their sounds and their meaning – tactile and emotional – that serves as an anchor to this swirling narrative. There’s also mystery in these all-too-few pages and it kept me turning them at a furious pace. There’s also surprising humor and heart. When the worst thing I can say about a book is that I wish it was longer, I know reading it was a satisfying experience. You may find it rewarding as well. There’s only one way to find out…

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