The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips
Henry Holt, 2015; 180 pp
Reviewed by Jordan Williams
There is a word game being played throughout Helen Phillips’ debut novel, The Beautiful Bureaucrat. The first instance occurs when Joseph Jones, the protagonist’s husband, notices how the sign for a “Diagnostic Laboratory” reads as “Agnostic Laboratory” when a truck parks partly in front of it. This is the couple’s “favorite kind of coincidence.” In dialogue, their give and take is often interrupted by playful homophones and letter substitutions. When describing the protagonist’s inner life, the narrator frequently disturbs the flow of her thoughts with strings of anagrams. Phillips and her characters seem determined to defuse particular words and phrases by dismantling their meanings.
A penchant for escapism may be fueling these word games. Josephine Newberry and her husband left their families in the “hinterland” only to find the indignities of poverty waiting for them in the city. The housing they can afford is decrepit and infested. Their bureaucratic jobs are solitary, tedious, and draining. Although their income gradually rises enough to provide some relief from poverty, Joseph’s increasing tendency to not come home at night allows Josephine to sink deep into her anxieties about their future.
As the novel progresses, its unpleasantries become severe. Returning home after one of his unexplained disappearances, Joseph decides to force himself on his wife. Josephine describes him in this scene as a “rapist” and a “demon” (his retort: “Demon demeanor…Demoner”). She fiercely hugs her knees to her chest and curses him, but Joseph is “euphoric, rich with energy, almost superhuman” and Josephine ultimately surrenders to his lust. It’s still unclear to me whether it’s reasonable to assume that Joseph is actually possessed or in some altered state when he attacks his wife. Regardless, my frustration with having this violence looming, unexplained and unresolved, over the rest of the novel proved more than I could handle. The peril inherent in Josephine’s marriage is a topic the novel explores in depth, but her apparent rape is not.
As Phillips’ writing style becomes increasingly mysterious, it becomes apparent that the reader is supposed to have a hazy sense of Josephine’s world, which seems slightly apocalyptic. The neighbor’s dog snarles “as though it had two heads” and from then on is referred to as a “three-headed dog,” like it might have been the victim of some nuclear accident or a genetic experiment. It’s almost impossible not to read the dog as an apocalypse-era Cerberus, appearing to trap Josephine in her own personal hell. The multiple heads may also be explained by her deteriorating eyesight, which is being exacerbated by the clerical nature of her job.
This novel is, for lack of a better description, extremely unpleasant. In fact, it’s almost ingeniously so. I think Phillips’ greatest talent is her ability to disturb her reader to the point of despair and then slip in poignant revelations once all defenses have been exhausted. If a reader is fortunate, the revelations will be enough to relieve that despair. That wasn’t quite the case for me. I closed the last page feeling more than a little demoralized.