From at least the era of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” (1853) through Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922); John Sladek’s “Masterson and the Clerks” (1967); Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (1974); Douglas Coupland’s Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (1991); and onward, the modern workplace, with all its grottiness, greed, and gratuitous insults to mind and body, has formed the basis for fascinating storytelling, mostly of a despairing, alienated, even surreal nature, emblematic of the quandary best captured by William Faulkner’s astute observation: “It’s a shame that the only thing a man can do for eight hours a day is work. He can’t eat for eight hours; he can’t drink for eight hours; he can’t make love for eight hours. The only thing a man can do for eight hours is work.”
With her accomplished debut novel, The Beautiful Bureaucrat, the account of one Josephine Newbury’s soberly zany, eerily mundane and heroically doomed foray into the business world, Helen Phillips has delivered a book that joins the ranks of these other classics. Like several other writers of her generation — Ned Beauman, Nick Harkaway, Ryan Boudinot, Reif Larsen, Tom Holt, and Karen Russell — Phillips combines a keen eye for the zeitgeist with an affection for off-kilter, contrarian, absurdist characters and scenarios. This combination of near-journalistic perspicacity and wild-eyed imagination results in Kafkaesque demolition derbies that nonetheless ring true to life.
Young Josephine Newbury, married for five years to Joseph, is out of work when we first meet her. She and her husband have come to the city — in all likelihood, though never specified, New York — from the “hinterlands.” They seek purpose, good fortune, excitement. Instead, they have encountered debt, poverty, abuse, and unemployment. But their love for each other remains vibrant, and their optimism gets buoyed up by small things, such as a special supper or the kindness of a waitress. And now, daily life seems to be improving. Joseph has a job, and Josephine is about to get one — if only she can pass the scrutiny of her prospective employer, the Person with Bad Breath. That anonymous drone has his office inside a giant monolithic windowless building whose only signage reads “AZ.” Or is that “ZA”? In either case, consider the establishment to be the Alpha and Omega of creation. For inside this building, Josephine will eventually learn, to her undoing, that the gears of the universe grind everything to a fine powder.
Once hired, Josephine finds that her sole and lonely task is the brain-numbing, eye-straining duty of inputting some numbers into “the Database” via a dedicated terminal. She tries to perform this unexplained duty with cheer and good will, but the inexplicable, repetitious labor is soul killing. And even outside of the AZ/ZA HQ, not all is going well. Josephine and Joseph keep getting evicted from various sublets. They lead an Airbnb existence, living out of suitcases. But more disturbingly, Joseph has been racking up some mysterious overnight vanishings. He returns every time but with no explanations. And Josephine’s quest to get pregnant is going nowhere.
At work, she talks at infrequent intervals only to the Barbie doll−like and maddeningly elusive Trishiffany and the Person with Bad Breath. Her attempts to explore the building have been stymied, and her counterparts in other offices prove unenlightening. Her skin is breaking out, paper cuts abound, and she is becoming more and more debilitated. The outcome, we intuit, is not going to be a happy one, and indeed Phillips is presenting us with a tragedy. But the path to the end, and the territory through which it passes, form a hypnotic journey behind the scenery of the quotidian.
Phillips’s prose is acutely poetic, studded with striking metaphors. Here is Trishiffany chewing gum:
She worked a gob of gum on her tongue into an enormous bubble. As the bubble grew, it began to resemble some unidentifiable body part, a kidney or a liver or a uterus, something dark pink and veiny. When the bubble popped, bits of organ flew back into Trishiffany’s face and melted down her ball gown.
Such passages are a pleasure to read, and Phillips adds to the easy, enrapturing flow by intense variation of her sentence lengths. You can go from this:
She felt happy. The spaghetti. The butter.
to something like this:
And there was a certain satisfaction in it, in making her way through the pile of gray files, in noting the odder or more colorful names, in observing the small yet striking coincidences (a triumvirate of surnames that ended with an “X,” someone with the initials “SOB,” a pair of Michael Jacksons), in sliding the files one by one into Outgoing.
Through the use of such heterogeneous rhythms, as well as inventive Joycean wordplay, Phillips can fully alter the mood and tone of her story, inducing suspense or boredom as we identify implicitly with Josephine’s plight.
And that plight, that trap, Josephine’s engagement with the AZ/ZA business, ultimately represents nothing more or less than a stroke of cosmic misfortune. By placing herself at the disposal of this organization, by becoming a bureaucrat, out of whatever justifiable level of desperation, Josephine has opened herself up to the consequences. Deracinated, she is prey to large metaphysical forces.
In a way, this somewhat Pynchonesque novel recalls The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and the hegira of Oedipa Maas. In fact, Oedipa’s famous vision of the underpinnings of reality might apply to Josephine:
She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had . . . there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out) . . .
But the difference in eras (’60s abundance and innate albeit qualified optimism versus twenty-first-century despair, scarcity, and malaise) and the disparity between Phillips’s worldview and that of Pynchon results in vastly contrasting outcomes for the two women. Whereas Oedipa Maas could go through some bad trips and still emerge, however much wounded, with a prized vision, Josephine Newbury (newly buried?) finds all roads to transcendence blockaded or leading straight to the abyss. She exhibits courage and ingenuity — more so than her husband, who is in some sense partly responsible for the tragedy — but it is all for naught.
The predecessor that this book ultimately most resembles is a curiously anomalous item from the usually effervescent Robert Heinlein, another tale about strange beings, strange jobs and trapdoors in the surface of reality. The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag (1942) curiously enough also features husband-and-wife protagonists, a bodily unpleasant demiurge, and existential terror. The shared affect between the two books renders them fraternal examples of the dictum that ignorance is bliss. We stick our tender parts into the cosmic sausage maker at our own peril.