Sunday, July 12, 2015

Data In, Lives Out

The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips


It is 2013 and Josephine and Joseph are newlyweds and new to the city. Broke and almost homeless, just getting jobs is more important than what they have to do at work. For Josephine, being alone in a dingy, windowless room, mindlessly entering data into a computer, is depressing enough, until she figures out the significance of the information she's inputting. That's when everything and everyone become even more puzzling as well as ominous.

Dystopia, Kafkaesque, speculative, fantasy, science fiction - call it what you will, this is one very unusual novel, and I don't mean that in a bad way. From the blankness of the prose and grayness of the surroundings, Phillips has put together a very dismal and cruel world. She even goes as far as starting the story during the brisk and bright autumn and having us follow the action as it moves into the cloudy and colder early winter, making even that into a metaphor for the novel. At its essence, this story poses the questions: what if machines control our lives, and what if some infinite number of bureaucrats fills those machines with data. This fascinating novel (or novella, with less than 150 pages), investigates this, while wondering if these bureaucrats actually have any way to rebel. More importantly, what consequences will there be if they do rebel.

I have to mention the deep psychological aspect of this book, by noting that Josephine is fully sane, although she's also somewhat paranoid, and seems to be seeing strange things. As Joseph Heller once said, "just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they aren't after you." This is precisely what Joseph and Josephine experience here, and this is how Phillips makes the most of her basic premise. This also points up the free will vs. external control counterpoint, which is part of Phillips' conceit.

Despite how heavy this sounds, and the encroaching darkness that we witness, Phillips also injects little splashes of hope and light. For example, there are the word anagrams in the middle of conversations and thoughts, or sudden bouts of little splurges by the couple, as they slowly have the money to buy themselves treats, or just take a walk to escape the dilapidated states of their string of increasingly depressing sublets. Combining these two elements allowed Phillips to carefully build the tension and slowly increase the pace of this novel, and bring it to an explosive climax and conclusion. Furthermore, Phillips does this with a shockingly stark narrative, which matches Josephine's world that is exacerbated by her failing eyesight (due to her many tedious hours on the computer) perfectly.

What more can I say besides this is the type of book I love reading; one that grabs you so subtly, before you know it, you've almost come to the end without noticing how involved you are. However, I should mention that there were parts of this book that were very creepy, and I almost stopped reading quite early in the book. Thankfully, I kept at it, and as you can see, I reaped the reward for my perseverance. Because of this, I'm going to strongly recommend this novel, and give it a healthy four and a half stars out of five. 
 

"The Beautiful Bureaucrat" by Helen Phillips, published by Henry Holt & Co., for release August 11, 2015 will be available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an advance reading copy of this novel via NetGalley.

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