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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Beautiful Bureaucrat

Helen Phillips

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To purchase The Beautiful Bureaucrat

Title: The Beautiful Bureaucrat
Author: Helen Phillips
Genre: Novel
Written: 2015
Length: 177 pages
Availability: The Beautiful Bureaucrat - US
The Beautiful Bureaucrat - UK
The Beautiful Bureaucrat - Canada
The Beautiful Bureaucrat - India

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Our Assessment:

B : reasonably fun approaches and ideas

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times B+ 14/8/2015 Gina Frangello
The NY Times . 24/8/2015 Sarah Lyall
The NY Times Book Rev. . 9/8/2015 Jamie Quatro

  From the Reviews:
  • "Part dystopian fantasy, part thriller, part giddy literary-nerd wordplay, Helen Phillips' The Beautiful Bureaucrat, is both a page-turner and a novel rich in evocative, starkly philosophical language. (...) This slim novel, which can easily be devoured in a day, doesn't always live up to Phillips' great ambitions. (...) But what is most impressive here is that Phillips has taken plot-twist epiphanies that are hardly new, in either literature or Hollywood, and delivered eerie, stomach-dropping surprises even to those who may believe they have it figured out." - Gina Frangello, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(U)nusual and deeply interesting (.....) Itís an irresistible setup and if thatís all there were, it would be enough. (...) The novel is at its most heartfelt when it moves past allegory and symbolism and zeros in on the relationship between Josephine and her husband." - Sarah Lyall, The New York Times

  • "Phillipsís thrillerlike pacing and selection of detail as the novel unfolds is highly skilled. (...) The characters, too, can feel generic, even cutesy at times. (...) Style aside, what makes The Beautiful Bureaucrat a unique contribution to the body of existential literature is its trajectory, as the story telescopes in two directions, both outward to pose macro questions about God and the universe, and inward to pose intimate inquiries about marriage and fidelity." - Jamie Quatro, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Beautiful Bureaucrat centers entirely on Josephine Newbury, who recently moved "to this unfamiliar city" after her husband landed a job here. The couple, both long unemployed, are down-and-almost-out, but perhaps are getting on their feet again: the novel opens with Josephine at a job interview, getting herself hired, making them a two-income family again. True, when she gets home she finds they've been evicted from their apartment, but the basic trajectory suggests the possibility of improving circumstances (even as the series of dismal sublets they then take residence in are reminders that they haven't quite made it yet).
       Josephine's new job is of the mind-numbing, repetitious, and perplexing data-entry sort. In fact, Josephine literally doesn't know what she's doing -- and it's unnecessary that she understands her work in order to do it: she is a cog, serving a specific function, nothing more.
       Her employers reassure her: "But no need to be curious". Of course, she is curious, and she eventually is compelled to explore what the hell this immense anonymous monolith -- the epitome of a 'Kafkaesque' workplace -- and her role in it actually are.
       A crisis of conscience comes when Josephine puts together the pieces. "I realized what I do here", she admits to a co-worker -- and she doesn't think she can continue doing it.
       Meanwhile, on the domestic front, she doesn't seem to know what her husband is actually up to -- there's no explanation of what his job is or involves -- and their relationship seems to be getting tested as he is increasingly out of reach. The personal and the professional come to overlap, with new challenges that she must quickly adapt to; these also clear up some of the mysteries in the book, as the pieces fall further into place.
       The Beautiful Bureaucrat nicely evokes corporate culture and mind-numbing drudge-(paper-)work, with a nicely sinister edge to things to keep readers intrigued. Josephine's domestic situation is less satisfactorily realized: for much of the novel Joseph remains largely remote and even absent, even as The Beautiful Bureaucrat ultimately reveals itself to also be a (modern ?) family romance.
       Phillips engages in a great deal of wordplay, with Josephine not so much mishearing as warping what she hears, all part of an: "irrepressible voice, always twisting language from within -- his wordplay met her unrest". Some of this is fun, but a little also goes a long way. At a doctor's office she sees a poster with the words:

     What's it like to eat three hours ? She was feeling impish. How do they taste ? Like cotton candy or grass or concrete ?
       Phillips, too, apparently felt impish the entire time she was writing the novel. The wordplay does play into the story -- and ambiguity, and the search for order and meaning, are among the novel's main themes -- but it's a tough trick to pull off at this length and can become trying.
       The Beautiful Bureaucrat is a breezy, quick read with some nice touches to it, but the idea(s) behind it -- the construct -- shows too much, and it's not entirely a success.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 August 2015

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The Beautiful Bureaucrat: Reviews: Helen Phillips: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Helen Phillips was born in 1983.

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© 2015 the complete review

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