Helen Phillips’ The Beautiful Bureaucrat

Lately I’ve been making a point of randomly scanning library shelves. Not because I don’t have a long enough list of books to read (this is, in fact, all the more reason for me to never set foot in a library ever) but because I so deeply miss the experience of randomly scanning library shelves. Do you remember those days? Days when your mom would drop you off in the children’s/YA section of the library (for us it was a whole floor) and you could run about the aisles pensively and carefully move from shelf to shelf, waiting for an appealing binding to jump out and seize your imagination? I think the library was my first experience of freedom, which probably explains more than it should.

It’s just as pleasurable an experience as an adult, particularly because there is none of this accompanying mental calculation that one has to go through in a bookstore. My mental calculation looks like this:

Hmm, how much is this book? Yowza! Is this really what books cost nowadays??? Oh wait, I’m in Canada now so considering the exchange that’s…hmm…no that’s still way too expensive. Should I wait for the paperback? Maybe it makes sense to buy it electronically. Does the library have it? *Thumbs phone distractedly.* 5th in line on the reservation list. That’s way too long to wait. But is this something I really need to own? How could I possibly squeeze it into our shelves? Oh look! Something shiny! *Puts book down, walks away, forgets title until eight months later, hearing an interview with the author on Fresh Air.*

The library is an absolutely zero risk environment. It’s a safe space for people with a book addiction. And so lately I’ve been trying to forget my TBR list completely and simply wander through the shelves, looking at bindings, remembering that first taste of freedom that (unlike adult freedom) comes with zero accompanying responsibility.

And, lo and behold, I find awesome things…

Henry Holt, 2015
Henry Holt, 2015

Helen Phillip’s The Beautiful Bureaucrat is so astoundingly smooth. There’s no other word for it. The prose has not a single jagged edge. It has that mark of a perfectly manicured editing job and I know that sounds like a sort of boring endorsement for a book but here, it’s really everything. Because. Being so smooth is how Phillips manages to pull off this feat of landing the reader right into a semi-dystopian-yet-all-too-familiar place.

The novel comes after a book of vignettes and a book for children and precedes her recent collection of stories Some Possible Solutions (Henry Holt, 2016). It tells the story of Joseph and Josephine, newly arrived in the city from what they semi-affectionately, semi-disparagingly call “the hinterland,” which is a combination of suburban landscape and natural scenery. Though they move to the city due to the difficulty securing jobs, Josephine continues to suffer the pangs of soul-wrenching unemployment even in the concrete jungle. That is, until she finds a job entering data from the confines of a depressing, grey, entirely secluded office.

This whole set-up is creepily familiar. Not only does the joblessness feel exactly like that of recent years in the US, but the job that Josephine performs feels precisely like one of those post-college jobs that make you want to stab your eyes out but you stay in because you have to eat and because there are probably better things to come. Data. Entry. We all did it. And we all did it (at least in part) to move out of our parents’ basement (either metaphorically or actually).

Cornell University Press, 1975
Cornell University Press, 1975

My favorite thing about this book is how it manages the reader’s experience of the fantastic. And when I say fantastic, I mean it in the way Todorov defines it. For Tzvetan Todorov (aka: my favorite structuralist and all around very cool dude), the fantastic is a moment of hesitation with regard to the supernatural. The reader (and the character with whom the reader’s perspective resides) is confronted with certain circumstances that are either “uncanny” (they are not supernatural but merely seem so, and turn out to have natural explanations) or they are “marvelous” (they are supernatural and the reader must then accept them as real).

Here’s a quote:

“The fantastic requires the fulfillment of three conditions. First, the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural and a supernatural explanation of the events described. Second, this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus the reader’s role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work–in the case of naive reading, the actual reader identifies himself with the character. Third, the reader must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as “poetic” interpretations.”

So, to gloss that, we’re in a world that is fiction, but the same as our own. So what constitutes “natural” and “supernatural” are the same, and we are forced to choose between them in the same way we would when presented with these phenomena in our own nonfictional world. This confrontation is also the character’s confrontation, and it is the very point of the book – this decision between natural and supernatural. The third thing is the most important, but needs clarifying. Essentially, when confronted with an instance that may or may not be supernatural. you can’t simply say to yourself that it is some kind of artistic conceit – that it is symbolism or allegory or a flowery way of describing things. It has to be part of what’s at stake in the “game” of the text.

This process happens in the very first sentence of The Beautiful Bureaucrat (which is often the case with the fantastic – it’s with us from the beginning):

“The person who interviewed her had no face. Under the circumstances – if the job market hadn’t been so bleak for so long, if the summer hadn’t been so glum and muggy – this might have discouraged Josephine from stepping through the door of that office in the first place. But as things were, her initial thought was: Oh, perfect, the interviewer’s appearance probably deterred other applicants!

The illusion of facelessness was, of course, almost immediately explicable. The interviewer’s skin bore the same grayish tint as the wall behind, the eyes were obscured by a pair of highly reflective glasses, the fluorescence flattened the features assembled above the genderless gray suit.

Still, the impression lingered.”

Facelessness is a pretty great moment of hesitation between the uncanny and the marvelous. Genuine facelessness could not have a viable explanation. It would have to be supernatural. But the kind of quotidian facelessness that occurs when people blend into their environments, particularly in urban spaces, is perfectly natural.

According to Todorov, after the moment of hesitation that constitutes the fantastic, we choose between the uncanny (what seems supernatural but is not) and the marvelous, in which “new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena.”

What’s so extraordinary about this book – and the reason that its precision is so laudable – is that some of its most uncanny occurrences resolve in a completely rational explanation, but only given the dictates of the marvelous circumstances that have been created. There is a space in which the rational – and it even verges on mundane – only becomes rational because of these new laws of nature. Here, the marvelous makes the uncanny possible.

Which is just. so. wickedly. cool.

I can’t say any more without giving away the book so I won’t. But really, I CANNOT RECOMMEND THIS NOVEL HIGHLY ENOUGH. It is perfect. You can read it in an afternoon (and it will be a great afternoon), or it would make a perfect companion for your morning metro commute to your anonymous office job.

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