Friday, September 18, 2015

Beautiful?!? Not how I would describe this Bureaucrat! :)

The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips
This book was definitely not the norm... 
I knew this was scheduled for discussion with The Socratic Salon (TSS) and it sounded unique and rather fascinating--definitely different, so I had my favorite local independent bookstore owner order a copy which I coincidentally picked up just one day prior to the TSS discussion. Coincidentally because by the time this one arrived, I had totally forgotten about the TSS Book Breakdown scheduled!! :)

I read this in several hours the following afternoon and then when I checked email, discovered this was also the day for the big discussion! Funny how things work out sometimes!! Normally, I would prefer to post my own review first and then discuss, but I didn't have time! (You will note that it has required several weeks just to distill my reactions to this one into what I hope to be a coherent composition!) I was quite grateful for the discussion, because my initial reaction to this one was YUCK! Whew! I literally felt as if there was so much and yet so little to discuss! I am a reader who most enjoys finely drawn characters and relationships among them, and in that regard I found this one severely lacking...and yet not! I have such mixed emotions about it! (I couldn't tell, could you?!? Stick with me for such unexpected and shocking disclosures! lol) However, I do know this for certain--were it not for a discussion forum similar to TSS or another group of readers with whom to discuss this one, I wouldn't have enjoyed it at all. In my humble opinion, this book is excellent at sparking discussion because it was strictly a symbolic allegory-laden text. (I doubt that phrase is an accepted literary term...but it works for me! And, it is my blog, after all!) 

In reading others' reviews on the blogosphere, I am definitely in the minority, so please do not take my word for it! I will say I was reminded of Animal Farm by George Orwell, which I reread just a few years ago. The main similarity between these two books is the reliance upon a reader's interpretation of the symbolism and allegories contained within. However, The Beautiful Bureaucrat is, in my opinion, much less well-defined than Orwell's work. TBB can be interpreted in so many different ways...this is definitely NOT a book for those who demand an ending that wraps up all the loose ends and provides definitive answers. However, it is a superbly written work. Phillips uses all types of writing tools and wordplay to make for a strongly expressed yet concise text to engage the reader. 

I was reminded of A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick (Literary Wives Read #3) in that both Phillips and Goolrick are so highly skilled in creating a bleak oppressive atmosphere throughout each of these books. I believe I actually enjoyed TBB better than ARW, however, mainly because there was, in my opinion, absolutely no HOPE in ARW! Yuck! There was not one character I could even like a little bit--they all struck me as being totally despicable! TBB did offer a bit of hope at the end, however, and I could like some aspects of both Joseph and Josephine. Even Trishiffany had her good points! I think she was genuinely trying to be kind and helpful to Josephine to avoid her getting in 'trouble' and/or keeping tabs on her...

I admit to being intrigued from the start:
  The person who interviewed her had no face. 
  The illusion of facelessness was, of course, almost immediately explicable. The interviewer's skin bore the same grayish tint as the wall behind, the eyes were obscured by a pair of highly reflective glasses, the fluorescence flattened the features assembled above the genderless gray suit. (1-2)
Can we say 'alliteration'? :) works! This Bureaucrat asks some unique (read: 'illegal') interview questions and makes some bizarre comments: "You're married," "You wish to procreate?" At the conclusion of the interview:
  Hourly rate $XX.XX (not so very much, but so very much more than nothing), benefits, tax paperwork, the stuff of life, direct deposit in case of a change of address, sign here, 9:00 a.m. Monday, and off she went, employed, regurgitated by the concrete compound out into the receding day. (8) 
That last phrase hit me like a brick. It was so powerful to me! Not a pleasant vision, almost like a birth or rebirth? Initially, I was relieved...okay, good. 

Now she has a job and her husband has a job, both after a rather long period of unemployment, so on to rebuilding their lives! But...she arrives 'home' and...
  Joseph was sitting on their bed.
Okay...that's not so weird, especially if they live in a rather small apartment, perhaps a studio? But continuing...
Their bed was out on the sidewalk in front of their building, surrounded by everything they owned, all the objects they had brought with them from the hinterland.
  "We're evicted," he said neutrally..." (9)
Oh, no! My immediate thought was that this was a rather strange coincidence, was it not? The same day she is hired by this enigmatic stranger, they are evicted... The concrete compound was marked into sections A through Z and she works in Z... At this point I was wondering about any possible tie-ins or connections... 

Josephine describes her office walls: 
...she realized it wasn't just years of tack holes and tape that made these walls look so tired. These were scratches, smears, shadowy fingerprints, the echoes of hands. (21) 
And she feels as if the walls are closing in on her. At this point I'm wondering if past 'employees' were actually imprisoned or just seemed so sinister...ah, perhaps alliterative writing is 'catching'! :)

Josephine's vision becomes bleary, blurry, and her eyes are always so tired and red/bloodshot! As she notices with everyone else who works in this compound. Then she purchases a candy bar from the one vending machine she finally manages to locate at work following much searching, and out pops lavender candies that cut her tongue as they dissolve in her mouth. WHAT?!? Joseph becomes moodier and moodier and actually stays out all night a couple of times. She starts referring to him by his social security number rather than using his name. Their life is so depressing, they keep moving from sublet to sublet, each with bizarre elements and yet there are attempted deliveries for her though they've informed no one else of these new addresses. The man in the gray sweatshirt seems to be ever-present. Josephine begins to imagine/see things that aren't there.

Later, they sat on the couch, eating carrots. She leaned her head against his skull while he chewed. She listened to his jaw moving. She liked to hear the sounds of his skeleton. (86)
As she is opening every door in the A section, searching for Joseph:
Without him she was just a lonely brain hurtling through space, laughing quietly to itself. (149)

When Hillary, the waitress explained that the snake tattoo on her arm was due to the fact that she told fortunes,
  Josephine smiled politely. She and Joseph didn't believe in fortunes. (12)
Okay, I wonder what they do believe in? Self-destiny? That they could/would make their own lives. Pre-ordained destiny? As determined by a deity or multiple Gods? However, Josephine repeated phrases throughout the book from her 'fortune' as told her by Hillary, particularly "Some of your expectations are unrealistic." Then near the end of the book she catches Hillary giving someone else the exact same 'fortune,' verbatim! 
  "Stop it!" Josephine said... 
  "That's my fortune!" ...childish in her despair....
  Hillary wasn't sheepish.
  "That's everyone's fortune, sugarplum!" she replied. "Anyway, I'm just a hobbyist." (140)
So, again, each person is the same? Interchangeable?  

..."baby" was too tame a word for this vitality. Beast, miniature beast, precious perfect beast just emerged from the blackness of the universe, rich with desires. (116)
One blogger mentioned that use of the word 'beast' for the baby bothered her, but then Joseph had claimed he was a "demon," "demeanor," "demoner" on the night they had sex and I think we are to assume is the time of conception. 

If this review seems disjointed, even incoherent at times, that reflects TBB as it is written. This is one of the very strangest reading experiences I have ever had, perhaps the strangest! If you are the least bit interested, I strongly advise you to read The Socratic Salon discussion and each of the bloggers' reviews listed there. I can apply many different interpretations to this work:

1) Living and working in a large urban environment can lead to all people seeming the same or conforming to standardized mores, customs, etc.

2) Working within a bureaucratic system eventually warps the mind, body, and spirit until everyone morphs into an identical entity who only "follows the rules" and never truly 'thinks' for themselves. Drinking that corporate "Kool-Aid." 

3) As an allegory to the Christian Bible/belief system(s)? Joseph/Josephine--definitely could be considered as strictly symbolic names, as well as an echoing of that "everyone is the same" theme. Creation is predetermined? By whom? Or what? A system, a mechanism, a beaurocracy? 

4) A treatise on 'fertility'? One blogger noted there is fertility symbolism given to pomegranates one of which is pictured on the cover. 

5) The specific beetle and pomegranate depicted on the cover reminded me of a documentary I watched decades ago showing the symbiotic relationship between a certain wasp species and figs in a tropical locale--each required the other to reproduce/live. Perhaps there is a similar relationship between these two? And that means...what? We all need each other? We all must rely upon each other? We all must 'work together' to survive? and procreate? 

6) What does the final scene represent? Are we to believe their is a separate file folder for each creature, be it insect, mammal, whatever, in this room that extends 'to infinity and beyond'? (As Buzz Lightyear would say!) 

It is a fascinating premise...this seeming lack of...a theme or premise! If you're in the mood for something REALLY different and unique, then this is the one for you. If you only appreciate reading structured 'stories' with tightly-wrapped endings, this one is definitely NOT for you! Have you read it? What are your thoughts? Now I would kinda like to know what the author's intentions are/were.


  1. Very interesting! I appreciate your struggle with the book because everyone seems to love it, but it sounds so unique I wasn't sure if I wanted to read it or not. I'm partly attracted to a story that could have many interpretations, but another part of me sometimes wants a book that's more straightforward and has structure.

    1. I fully understand that. I appreciate both types of books, too. Considering this only required 2-3 hours to read given that it is rather small page count, I didn't consider it a loss, though while reading I did get bored with it--seemingly so much repetition! Definitely for me, any enjoyment (other than appreciation of her use of writing tools) mainly came from sharing and reading others' interpretations/reactions! You might give it a go, just to see... :) Please let me know if you do!

  2. I think I'll read this sometime even just to see how my opinion of it fits in with everyone else's. Just the fact that you described it as strange makes me want to read it! I usually like strange books, and if I don't, they are at least interesting. :)

    1. Exactly, Naomi! Sometimes "strange" is very attractive, or at least it makes me curious enough to discover my own reaction! I really think you should give it a go! And, I just picked up my brand new copy of Against a Darkening Sky by Lauren Davis this weekend! Yippee!!