There’s been something of a Kafka resurgence in American literary fiction the past 15 years or so, led by people like George Saunders. Oppressively surreal worlds, with strange, totalizing institutions and mind-numbing bureaucracies. But few books make this motif as straight-up nightmarish as Helen Phillips’ The Beautiful Bureaucrat.
Seriously, everything in this book feels like a weird waking nightmare, and Phillips perfectly captures what it’s like to be young and kind of broke and stuck in a horrible job. The part where there’s a huge lurking existential, supernatural dread involved is just a bonus.
In The Beautiful Bureaucrat, a young couple, Josephine and Joseph, go to live in the big city in a series of horrendous sublets, where the bedsheets are gray with accumulated dirt. Josephine gets a job working for some kind of mysterious bureaucracy, where she processes files every day: the files are just names and dates, and the dates are always tomorrow’s date.
Eventually, Josephine figures out exactly what those files represent and just what kind of information she’s processing here, so the book starts to get a lot heavier and more existential. But even before that, her job is a perfect representation of the soul-crushing nature of shitty work situations, and her horrible living situation is a dull nightmare version of a terrible Airbnb or a dreadful sublet.
And meanwhile, the relationship between Josephine and Joseph slowly reveals just how a discouraging, disheartening, stressful work life can eat away at your sense of self and leave you with so little sense of self that you have nothing to give anybody else.
Phillips also captures the seductiveness of work, and the way that it can take over your brain—even when it’s just pure dumb repetition. The whole book is full of great passages like, “The files mocked her, their voices whispery as paper cuts. She worked coldly, like someone who had never loved.” The office building where Josephine works is windowless, no decorations are allowed, and the whole place feels like a cold, musty old maze of weirdness. There’s only one vending machine, and it’s full of yucky expired candy.
So yes, The Beautiful Bureaucrat is kind of a depressing book, in which everything joyful and happy gets slowly drained of life and you feel as though the city is a monstrous beast that eats souls. But at the same time, this book is so beautifully written and dotted with such vivid moments of humor, you get swept along.
And the overall feeling of The Beautiful Bureaucrat is one of a living nightmare, a dreamlike version of reality in which everything is just slightly surreal and kind of horrible. There are always ugly little touches, like worms underfoot or a boss who has such bad breath that it smells poisonous. The whole thing feels like an especially vivid dream, in which everything is kind of blighted and nasty.
There’s just a pervasive sense of dread, of people sneaking up behind you or of something dreadful in the corner of your eye, that comes with the exhaustion and enervation. Witness this amazing passage:
Walking in the park, Josephine tried to imitate a happy person, a satisfied, relaxed, competent person strolling in a park, but she kept having the sensation of people staring at her. A small girl with a soccer ball. A skinny woman whose black pit bull strained against its leash. The frightening old men who dared fish in the city pond. All staring at her, or so it seemed, with brazen judgment, as though they knew she was not where she was supposed to be. As though someone had instructed them to keep an eye on her.
Because the Database had abused her eyes, the swans looked to her like big white irascible blurs. A baby sitting on the grass in a red coat was actually a fire hydrant; a spaniel’s face was actually a spaniel’s behind.
There’s something about being so trapped in a soul-sucking job that you feel like you’re still caught up in it when you get outside into the “real” world.
The Beautiful Bureaucrat is mercifully short but also incredibly beautiful in its ugliness. In a crowd of dystopias and dark, oppressive worlds, this book is uniquely strange and haunting, and it fulfills all the promises of our new wave of Kafka-esque literary storytelling.