Summary and book reviews of The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips

The Beautiful Bureaucrat

by Helen Phillips

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

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Book Reviewed by:
Davida Chazan

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About this Book

Book Summary

A young wife's new job in an enigmatic organization pits her against the unfeeling machinations of the universe in this inventive and compulsively page-turning first novel

In a windowless building in a remote part of town, the newly employed Josephine inputs an endless string of numbers into something known only as The Database. After a long period of joblessness, she's not inclined to question her fortune, but as the days inch by and the files stack up, Josephine feels increasingly anxious in her surroundings - the office's scarred pinkish walls take on a living quality, the drone of keyboards echoes eerily down the long halls. When one evening her husband Joseph disappears and then returns, offering no explanation as to his whereabouts, her creeping unease shifts decidedly to dread.

As other strange events build to a crescendo, the haunting truth about Josephine's work begins to take shape in her mind, even as something powerful is gathering its own form within her. She realizes that in order to save those she holds most dear, she must penetrate an institution whose tentacles seem to extend to every corner of the city and beyond. Both chilling and poignant, The Beautiful Bureaucrat is a novel of rare restraint and imagination. With it, Helen Phillips enters the company of Murakami, Bender, and Atwood as she twists the world we know and shows it back to us full of meaning and wonder-luminous and new.


Author Helen Phillips introduces her book, The Beautiful Bureaucrat in the video below:







Helen Phillips also tells the story of her alopecia in the video below:

ONE

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 ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. The first sentence of the book is both striking and vague: "The person who interviewed her had no face." How do you feel this sets the tone for the rest of the book?
  2. When the waitress first introduces her fortune-telling ability to Josephine, Josephine is too polite to tell her that "she and Joseph didn't believe in fortunes." What do you think ultimately shifts Josephine's perspective to the point that she takes seriously the fortune Hillary bestows upon her in Chapter 10?
  3. Food is a theme throughout the novel: from the diner pancakes and Joseph's pasta to Josephine's cheese sandwiches and the pomegranate. How do you think Helen Phillips uses food to set a mood or tell us something about Joseph and Josephine and the...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Overall, my impression was that Phillips wants us to begin reading The Beautiful Bureaucrat with a glimmer of hope, but she then moves us through various levels of quiet desperation with splashes of optimism, all as the action becomes increasingly unsettling. To do this, Phillips builds the stress and increases the pace of the narrative throughout this short novel, until it reaches a perfectly formed climax at the end of the book. This makes for a very exciting, page-turning read, with a surprisingly inscrutable conclusion, which I'm still pondering!   (Reviewed by Davida Chazan).

Full Review (646 words).

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Media Reviews

The Huffington Post

A little bit of Kafka, a little bit of The Yellow Wallpaper - intriguing.

L Magazine

Author of one of our favorite short story collections of all time, And Yet They Were Happy, Phillips now presents us with a stunning novel that manages to retain the sense of wonder and surreality that is omnipresent in her shorter fiction, while also weaving a complex, chilling plot.

Publishers Weekly

Phillips's black comedy of white-collar life doesn't reinvent the meaning of the word Kafkaesque, and to its credit, it doesn't try. The novel has enough horror and mordant humor to carry the reader effortlessly through its punchy send-up of entry-level institutionalization.

Library Journal

Suspenseful, creepy, and distinct, this work is sparse in style but elaborate in wordplay. For readers who like their literary fiction with a side of sf.

Bustle

Helen Phillips' story is slick, and her words are inspired. This certainly won't be the last you'll be hearing from her, so pick up her debut before all of your friends.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Intense and enigmatic, tense and tender, this novel offers no easy answers - its deeper meanings may mystify - but it grabs you up, propels you along, and leaves you gasping, grasping, and ready to read it again.

Author Blurb Ursula K. Le Guin
Told with the light touch of a Calvino and the warm heart of a Saramago, this brief fable-novel is funny, sad, scary, and beautiful. I love it.

Author Blurb Joshua Ferris
A satisfying parable of love and life, death and birth, and the travails of transposed numbers. The Beautiful Bureaucrat reads like a thriller.

Author Blurb Jenny Offill
The Beautiful Bureaucrat is a thrillingly original debut, formally inventive and emotionally complex. Helen Phillips is one of the most exciting young writers working today, and I envy those who get to discover her work here for the first time.

Reader Reviews

Diane S.

Beautiful Bureaucrat
I just finished this and am still not sure of what I read. A fever dream, a hallucination, possibly a nightmare, maybe all of them? All I know is that I started reading this and was hooked, wanted to find out what was going on. Josephine and ...   Read More

Prizslp

2 Stars Says it All
This book was chosen for a monthly book club. It's definitely not like anything else I have ever read. It was difficult to drudge through and I only finished it because of the club. I found the ending to be confusing and quite vague. The characters ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

A Comparison Between "The Yellow Wallpaper" and The Beautiful Bureaucrat

The Yellow WallpaperBecause I was not familiar with Helen Phillips, I did a little research. One review of The Beautiful Bureaucrat pointed me to the Huffington Post's 18 Brilliant Books You Won't Want To Miss This Summer. The early review there said "A little bit of Kafka, a little bit of 'The Yellow Wallpaper' – intriguing." I didn't know "The Yellow Wallpaper", so I searched and found the late-19th century short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. After reading this powerful story, which I highly recommend, my immediate conclusion was that while there are some similarities between the two stories, there are large differences that shouldn't be overlooked.

The most obvious overlap is that both Josephine (one of the main characters in The Beautiful ...

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