The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips: Out-Kafkaing Kafka

This is the first English language novel I’ve read from Pushkin Press, a publisher of whom I’m very fond. Their books are often a little out of the way: Hiromi Kawakami’s dreamlike Record of a Night Too Brief, Auđur Ava Ólafsdóttir’s wacky Butterflies in November and Dorthe Nors’ Mirror, Shoulder, Signal with its out-of-step protagonist, spring to mind. Helen Phillips’ The Beautiful Bureaucrat is similarly quirky: a gripping parable whose characters find themselves pulled into the ultimate bureaucracy.

After five years of marriage and many months of unemployment, Josephine and Joseph have taken themselves off to the city, turning their backs on the deadening ‘hinterland’ of suburbia. First Joseph finds himself a job, then Josephine is offered employment by an oddly faceless bureaucrat with a nasty case of halitosis. All she has to do is input the relevant date for each id-number in a constantly replenished pile of files. She rarely sees anyone apart from the bright and breezy head of the Department of Processing Errors, who visits her grim office now and again. The work is simple yet oddly demanding but she’s determined to stick to it no matter how red and strained her eyes become. Life is far from easy: the couple moves from squalid sublet to sublet and Joseph comes home later and later, arousing Josephine’s suspicions. Then there’s the longed-for baby that’s never conceived. When she sees a newspaper listing casualties from a plane crash whose names seem familiar from the rush job she’s just completed, Josephine begins to think about what her work means, engaging in a little illicit detective work. Meanwhile Joseph has been bending the rules at his own workplace.

Phillips’ arresting novella unsettles from the get-go with its sinister interviewer. Known only as The Person with Bad Breath, she frequently materialises without warning, jolting Josephine out of whatever reverie she’s escaped into. Phillips tells her story from Josephine’s perspective, engaging our sympathy with her character’s puzzlement at her work and the loneliness that seeps into her life. At first delighted with their new life in the city and the prospect of starting a family, Josephine and Joseph have climbed on a relentless, grinding treadmill. Phillips has a flair for memorably chilling lines – ‘Remember, you need the Database as much as the Database needs you!’; ‘Without him she was just a lonely brain hurtling through space, laughing quietly to itself’; ‘We’re all just doing what we have to do’ – but flashes of humour brighten what might otherwise have become unremitting gloom. A strange, compelling novella in which Phillips manages to out-Kafka Kafka, keeping her readers guessing as to what the shadowy AZ/ZA organisation is really up to. Not one for readers currently engaged in repetitive, seemingly pointless bureaucratic employment.

13 thoughts on “The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips: Out-Kafkaing Kafka”

  1. Ooh this sounds very good, an intelligent sounding thriller. Although I don’t like popular psychological thrillers this sounds far superior to those.

    1. Definitely not one from that genre which seems to be everywhere at the moment. It’s quite a chilling book balanced with a bit of humour albeit very dark. I’d recommend it, Ali.

  2. I LOVED this book – not my usual genre but couldn’t put it down. Apart from the fact that the story was completely unnerving, the writing was soooooo clever. At the time, I likened it to ‘Dr Seuss for adults’.

  3. This sounds like it could be the type of book to tempt me back into fiction, chilling and a little odd with strangely behaving characters. I have a feeling I might have read about it somewhere before, or perhaps it just feels familiar (like all bureaucracy). Is it a recent book?

    1. I know! ‘Without him she was just a lonely brain hurtling through space, laughing quietly to itself’ is also a corker. Highly recommend it depending on your own line of work.

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