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Excerpt from The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Beautiful Bureaucrat

by Helen Phillips

The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips X
The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2015, 192 pages
    May 2016, 192 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Davida Chazan
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The person who interviewed her had no face. Under other 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.

Josephine placed her résumé on the oversize metal desk and smoothed the skirt of her humble but tidy brown suit. The interviewer held a bottle of Wite-Out, with which he (or she?) gestured her toward a plastic chair.

The lips, dry and faintly wry, parted to release the worst breath Josephine had ever smelled as the interviewer inquired as to whether she had seen anything unusual en route to the interview.

The most unusual thing she had seen en route to the interview was the building in which she now found herself. Exiting the subway station, turning the corner, approaching the appointed address, she was surprised to come upon a vast, windowless concrete structure stretching endlessly down the block in what was otherwise a modest residential neighborhood. The concrete wall was punctuated at regular intervals by thick metal doors. The side of the building bore an enormous yet faded "A" and "Z," superimposed over each other so that it was impossible to know which letter ought to be read first. A narrow strip of half-dead grass separated the building from the sidewalk. As per her instructions, she located the door labeled "Z"; in fact, it was the first doorway she encountered, which she decided to claim as a positive omen. The elevator was slow. The concrete hallways droned with an anxious, unidentifiable sound.

"No," Josephine lied.

"You're married," The Person with Bad Breath asked, or stated, as though this was a corollary to the first question.

"Yes," she said, surprised by the flare of joy in her voice; five years in, it still felt like a novelty to be his wife. A few months ago, days after they'd moved to this unfamiliar city, as she was unpacking boxes in the newly rented apartment, she'd thought: Has evolution really managed to culminate in this? This spoon, this cup, this plate; us, here.

"His name," The Person with Bad Breath continued. Such a parched voice; Josephine's throat ached in sympathy.

"Joseph," she replied.

"Full name."

"Joseph David Jones." It occurred to her that The Person with Bad Breath had neglected to offer up a name or a title.


"Yes, an administrative job not far from here." Josephine chose not to mention that he'd only gotten the job a month ago; that it had followed his own weary interminable period of unemployment; that they'd fled the hinterland in hope of finding jobs just such as these; that they'd fled in hope of hope. "Just one subway stop away, actually," she elaborated when her comment was met with silence.

"Does it bother you that your husband has such a commonplace name?"

Josephine couldn't tell whether this was an interview question, a conversational question, a rhetorical question, or a joke. But she had been unemployed for far too long to bristle at it, or at anything else The Person with Bad Breath might come up with. And indeed: She had sometimes felt that the name Joseph David Jones was not sufficient to represent him, his moods and his kindnesses.

"I kept my maiden name," she dodged.

Excerpted from The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips. Copyright © 2015 by Helen Phillips. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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