The Beautiful Bureaucrat, by Helen Phillips
It’s pretty much an immutable law of the universe that any activity that takes place in an office will be labelled ‘Kafkaesque,’ usually by some smart-Aleck who doesn’t have to work in one. That said, it would be difficult not to read Helen Phillips’ new novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat without picking up on the strange blend of paranoia and mindless, hemmed-in, tedium that characterises Kafka. To call The Beautiful Bureaucrat a Kafkaesque tale of offices and paper-pushing would be to miss half the point, though — there’s more than a hint of Borges or Calvino in Phillips’ story as it shifts gear from squalid office comedy to metaphysical mystery, but more than that, hidden amid the cubicles and acres of filing cabinets is something wholly original and utterly preposterous and entirely compelling.
Josephine and her husband, Joseph, have moved from the hinterland to the city in search of work, which she finds quickly enough. She is offered a job by a man who is wholly forgettable, apart from his impossibly bad breath. The job is in a vast office complex, the size of a small town — Josephine is assigned to a small, windowless cubicle whose walls are scarred with gouge marks from its previous occupants.
Every day, she types a hundred or so first lines from a hundred or so forms into the Database, before going home and waking up to do the same thing over again. Bouncing from squalid bedsit to squalid bedsit, the Database begins to consume her life and her health — Josephine’s eyes are bloodshot, her nails chewed and frayed, her forehead bubbling with zits. And as Joseph starts disappearing more and more, the Database looms larger and larger.
Telling someone not to do something is far and away the easiest way of ensuring that they do just that, and The Person with Bad Breath tells Josephine that there is “no need to be curious” about the strings of ineffable code that she inputs, day in, day out. So, naturally, Josephine tries to puzzle it out: she’s not got anything better to do, after all. And in doing so, she stumbles across an ontological mystery hidden in the heart of the Database’s spreadsheets and filing cabinets, a mystery that manages to play out at once like a Borgesian parable on the infinite and on a level closer to home, one that is stiflingly claustrophobic and crushingly intimate.
Pushkin Press kindly sent me a copy of The Beautiful Bureaucrat.