Tag Archives: Helen Phillips

Paperbacks to Look Out for in June 2018: Part Two

Cover imageThis second batch of June paperbacks begins with a book from a favourite author. Comprising nine stories, two of them pleasingly lengthy, William Boyd’s The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth ranges from a philandering art dealer who gets his comeuppance to a novelist fleeing eviscerating reviews who bumps into one of his worst maulers and spots an opportunity for revenge. There’s much to enjoy here, not least the thread of humour reminiscent of the comedy in Boyd’s earlier work. Both writing and film feature but it’s the art barbs that are the most satisfying reminding me of the Nat Tate trick he and David Bowie pulled off back in the ’90s. Well worth reading even for those who aren’t short story fans.

Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko was one of last year’s literary bestsellers no doubt prompting the re-issue of Free Food for Millionaires which I remember reading and enjoying when it was first published here in the UK eleven years ago. It’s about Casey Han, the daughter of working-class Korean immigrants, whose years at Princeton have left her with a decent education and a set of expensive habits but no job. She and her parents both live in New York but they inhabit very different worlds. ‘As Casey navigates an uneven course of small triumphs and spectacular failures, a clash of values, ideals and ambitions plays out against the colourful backdrop of New York society, its many layers, shades and divides…’ say the publishers. I remember Casey as a particularly endearing character.

Roland Buti’s Year of the Drought tells the story of the Sutters who have farmed the same patch of Swiss land for many years but for whom the events of the long hot summer of 1976 will prove momentous. Thirteen-year-old Gus spends the summer holidays helping his father and his cousin Rudy who has Down’s Syndrome. When a young woman turns up, clad in a long patchwork dress and spouting hippie ideas, Rudy becomes besotted but it’s Gus’ mother who’s the object of Cécile’s attentions. Buti unfolds his story from Gus’ perspective as he looks back on the dramatic events of that summer.

In contrast to the Sutters Josephine’s life is spent almost entirely indoors in Helen Cover image Phillips’ gripping parable, The Beautiful Bureaucrat. Unemployed for many months, Josephine is offered a job 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. When she sees a newspaper listing casualties from a plane crash whose names seem familiar she begins to think about what her work means. Phillips’ strange compelling novella unsettles from the get-go. Not one for readers currently engaged in repetitive, seemingly pointless bureaucratic employment.

That’s it for June’s paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to a longer synopsis for Free Food for Millionaires and to my review for the other four novels should any have snagged your interest. If you’d like to catch up with the first part of the paperback preview it’s here. New titles are here and here.

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.