I love science fiction parables. George Orwell’s 1984, The Giver by Lois Lowry, The Hunger Games, Matched, Divergent – stories meant to question who has the power in your society, and what you need to do to take it back.
Often these stories are set in alternate worlds, where we can barely recognize the countries or landscape, only knowing that these stories of oppression and humanity feel familiar. But while Helen Philips’ The Beautiful Bureaucrat is vague about the details of its setting, its meant to elicit a spine-tingling familiarity with our world, as if it could happen, or is happening right now. This book also deals with the power in a quieter way – unlike Big Brother or the Capital, The Powers That Be in this book are much subtler and, well, bureaucratic. In fact, it’s much more personal, more like Jonas in The Giver, focusing on individual psyches over power structures.
One individual in particular, Josephine, has started working at a company where all she does is data entry. She moves with her husband Joseph from sublet to sublet, which they take in stride, happy to be away from their suburban childhoods, which they call the “hinterland.” Nothing in her life feels exactly real or tied down – even her husband seems to be shimmering with mystery. Her supervisor doesn’t seem to have a face; her co-workers seem near non-existent. She’s not even sure what the corporation she works at does, until she starts putting the disparate clues together.
When Josephine figures out the metaphysical component of all her data entry – well, I don’t know if I want to give up much more. It’s such a slim book, ruthlessly edited down to the most interesting parts. The most fascinating to me is that while this is a bit of a parable like the stories I mentioned, we spend the whole book in Josephine’s head. There isn’t a ton of dialogue, and while the character is married and her life is very much entwined with her husband’s, her thoughts and feelings are her own. And instead of treating her merely as the conduit for the audience to understand this strange world, Philips presents even Josephine’s most rote reflections and observations like witty gems; each feels important simply because Josephine is thinking them.
When reading the book, I focused less on the plot (which was important, but more background) and more on the particular feeling the book gave me, the sense of unease. Josephine takes in her small world – only having the time and money to mainly go from the office and home, with only her husband for company – and blows it out of proportion. This is Helen Philips’ strength – turning these everyday details and tempering them with meaning. Sure, in English class we learn all about those metaphors, but Philips weaves those symbols into the book without letting us see the stitches.
Overall, The Beautiful Bureaucrat challenges what it means to be a cog in a machine, and how to envision one’s future life when the present feels so unfinished. It’s a must read for giving oneself a different perspective on one’s career, life, and potential to write our fate.