- - Wednesday, September 23, 2015


By Helen Phillips

Henry Holt, $24.95, 180 pages


Medical alert: if you’re already, or easily, depressed, don’t read this book. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of fabulist fiction, read it as soon as you can.

First, a definition: according to Ken Keegan, a senior editor at Omnidawn Publishing, “At present, there are basically three major categories of fiction: genre fiction, literary fiction, and a third type which has had no commonly accepted name. This third type has cultural meaning and artistic value, which means it does not fit well into the escapist formula genres, yet it also has non-realistic elements and settings which exclude it from the category of literary fiction. We knew from the start that we wanted to publish this third type of fiction, but what would we call it? We’ve decided to use the simpler term ‘Fabulist Fiction,’ which in our minds we think of as embracing all the kinds of stories that might erase as well extend the boundaries of ‘non-realistic artistic fiction.”

Let there be no doubt, “The Beautiful Bureaucrat” is not escapist fare. Indeed, it might well be described as non-escapist, even, to use a word seen often these days, dystopian. And, it certainly has nonrealistic elements and settings. Josephine Newberry, the young female narrator, and Joseph Jones, her husband, are recently married college graduates who have just moved to the big never-named city, leaving behind friends and family in what is referred to throughout the novel as the Hinterland. Both have just come off periods of unemployment, and their financial situation is precarious, as evidenced by the series of increasingly dark, dingy, and depressingly small apartments they sublet out of necessity. All they have is one another.

Josephine finds work in a massive building located in a bad part of town. Her job in the huge windowless building that is meant to symbolize all bureaucracies, private sector as well as governmental, is to enter very specific information — in numbers, of course, not words — about real people from real paper files onto an enormous computer file identified simply as The Database. Not only is the work repetitive and mind-numbingly boring, but Josephine, whose spark of curiosity has yet to be extinguished, begins to suspect that there is something sinister involved. When she asks her boss, always referred to just as The Person with Bad Breath, what happens to the people whose names she enters, one after another after another, he replies, “It is better never to wonder about them.”

Josephine’s only friend at work, who may not in fact be a friend, is the oddly-named TrishTiffany (her parents liked both names, she explains), is no help as she would no longer ask such a question.

Josephine commits small acts of rebellion that get her nowhere and only increase her frustration and fear, such as daring to leave the building at lunch to eat her cheese sandwich outside on the grass or knocking on neighboring office doors (no one answers). The walls of her windowless office begin to resemble her skin, and her skin begins to react negatively to the lack of sun and air. Her only solace is her loving husband, whose small acts of kindness — and their sex life — sustain her. But then one night Joseph fails to come home, and when he does he offers no explanation. Life, like this novel, is increasingly hard to take.

A century ago, following the French, American fiction went through a period called naturalism, when writers such as Stephen Crane wrote books like “Maggie, A Girl of the Streets,” in which the main characters were doomed from birth, predetermined by heredity and environment to lead unhappy, failed lives. But the settings and descriptions in such books were totally, and grimly, realistic, whereas “The Beautiful Bureaucrat” contains surrealistic elements and unreal events and continuously hints at happiness, or at least the possibility thereof. But JoJoDolls, as TrishTiffany calls Josephine, refuses to give in to the system, for that would mean giving up on life.

The main character’s fight against the soul-deadening system unfolds short chapter by short chapter in the fashion of a mystery novel. And Helen Phillips does this very well. Her descriptive powers are excellent, and you find yourself admiring various clever turns of phrase. But in the end it isn’t enough to offset the essential oddness of the form.

The author, I was not at all surprised to learn, is an assistant professor of creative writing. And more often than not, I find books by writers so employed to be technically fine but somehow, or in some way, lacking in soul. However, fairness dictates that I mention this book comes highly-praised in such places as the Kirkus Review service, where it got a starred review, and by a number of other well-respected writers and critics.

It’s probably just as well the summer is over, because if you read this book at the beach you probably wouldn’t want to go in the water — or back to work.

John Greenya is a Washington writer and critic.

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