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Kafka Would Love 'The Beautiful Bureaucrat'

In the realm of office work, there's nothing quite so soul-crushing as data entry, a job that combines the joy of carpal tunnel syndrome with the fun of being in a room that's either air-conditioned to Arctic levels or heated to a degree that is only technically survivable by humans. Add to that the anodyne preachiness of those ubiquitous motivational posters, and you've got, essentially, a fever dream of unpleasantness.

Josephine Newbury, the hero of Helen Phillips' novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat, isn't even that lucky. Her job consists of comparing paper files to entries on a database, which she updates if there are any inconsistencies. (There rarely are.) The files aren't even slightly interesting; they're just names followed by an impenetrable series of letters, numbers and punctuation. It might actually be the most boring job in the world — until it's not.

Josephine and her husband, Joseph, have moved to a big city from the "hinterlands" ("hinterland, hint of land, the term they used to dismiss their birthplaces, that endless suburban non-ness") in hopes of finding jobs, and making better lives for themselves. But the search for work isn't easy, and while Joseph lands a job, Josephine is unable to. They're forced to live in a succession of grimy, barely livable sublets, occasionally getting free meals at a diner from a friendly waitress who's taken to the couple.

Their luck turns around — sort of — when Josephine finds work at a mysterious agency in a huge, monolithic building. She gets her own office, but it's a small, sickly pink one, and she's not even allowed to hang a calendar on the wall. The only people she regularly encounters are her boss, whom she knows only as "The Person with Bad Breath," and Trishiffany, a bubbly bureaucrat with whom Josephine has nothing in common.

Things start getting weird when Josephine gets curious about the names she's forced to stare at all day, and even weirder when her husband fails to come home one night. He returns later, but Josephine is unsettled by his vague explanation, and even more unsettled by a series of "delivery failed" notices with her name pasted on her apartment door — she hasn't given anyone her new address.

It wouldn't be fair to spoil what happens next, but it's both bizarre and painfully human. The Beautiful Bureaucrat isn't a thriller, exactly, but it reads like one — there's not a wasted word in the book, and it's nearly impossible to put down. Phillips is a master at evoking claustrophobic spaces, whether it's Josephine's unbearably tiny, windowless office, or the efficiency apartment she shares with her husband. It's a deeply tense book, but never a manipulative one.

It's also quite funny. Phillips' sense of humor is bizarre, dark but not oppressive. Josephine and Joseph amuse each other with goofy wordplay, and she needs the breaks after being subjected to vague, slightly menacing platitudes from her boss ("Remember, you need the Database as much as the Database needs you!"). There's also a good deal of comic relief from Trishiffany, the comically ebullient co-worker who insists on calling Josephine "Jojo doll."

Perhaps the best part of The Beautiful Bureaucrat is the relationship between Josephine and Joseph. For writers inspired by Kafka (and Phillips, though an extremely original author, clearly is here), characters too often become stand-ins for ideas, or deliberately vague placeholders used to illustrate how society can dehumanize us. But the couple's relationship is utterly believable; they fight and laugh and make love the way people who care about each other really do. It's not for a second sentimental or treacly; it's just astoundingly real.

And that's the most remarkable thing about The Beautiful Bureaucrat — it works just as well as a love story as it does a sui generis thriller. That's not to say it's a book you can easily label. Of course there are echoes of Kafka, but they're tempered by Phillips' exuberance, her humor, and her very real sense of joyful defiance. It's a surprising revelation of a book from an uncompromising author as unique as she is talented.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub
Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.