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Camus, again?

Bryan St. Amand

Beautiful Bureaucrat cover

Helen Phillips
The Beautiful Bureaucrat
Henry Holt & Company Inc
£16.99 (hardback)
140 Pages
ISBN: 9781627793766

With a title like The Beautiful Bureaucrat, Helen Phillips’ latest novel was inevitably going to be called ‘Kafkaesque’—and it does, at least superficially, deserve the epithet. The protagonist is Josephine Newbury, who has moved with her husband, Joseph, to a nameless city from the “hinterland, hint of land, the term they used to dismiss their birthplaces, that endless suburban non-ness.” Joseph and Josephine are similarly non-entities, attempting to transcend their lack of uniqueness through a move to the big city—but they’ve run up against their financial limit, and the book opens with Josephine landing a data-entry job at an anonymous bureaucracy housed in a windowless building. She spends her days entering a jumble of numbers and letters into a computer, and she is advised by her boss that curiosity is discouraged.

The novel is refreshingly compact and briskly paced—clocking in at 140 pages, it’s a nice counterpoint to the elongated, ‘Dickensian’ novels that seem to be in vogue these days. By keeping the setting and characters abstract and general, Bureaucrat presents itself as an allegory; numerous classical references reinforce this effect. Josephine’s job is mindless and mind-numbing; the corporate atmosphere deadens and dulls those who work there until they become faceless (in the literal sense: their facial features cease to be distinguishable) as well as nameless. Josephine’s boss is “the Person with Bad Breath,” a vaguely ominous presence around the office, and the only other two named characters in the book are Josephine’s coworker, Trishiffany, “a petite bright-blonde who looked to be in her twenties, a bubble-gum-pink suit straining against disproportionately large breasts,” and Hillary, a sympathetic waitress with her hair in a “resplendent, unnatural shade of orange” and a snake tattoo.

It’s telling that the only characters who achieve specificity, Trishiffany and Hillary, do so through hyperbolic self-expression: dramatic hair, flamboyant clothing, in what seems like compensation for their inability to distinguish themselves through other means. Meanwhile, in a running joke that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Girls or a Noah Baumbach film, Josephine and Joseph move to progressively more dismal city sublets, further and further out. As Josephine’s eyes grow bloodshot from staring at the computer for days on end, she attempts to distract herself with small wordplay—”Nobody. No body. Oneself. One’s elf,” “Happiness. Happy nest. Ha penis”—and she begins to call Joseph by his social security number as a sort of pet name. Her relationship with her husband, like her inner world and her sense of self, dissolves into indistinctness as she adapts.

From this premise, the book begins to resemble a thriller, a sort of “existentialist whodunit,” as Josephine’s husband goes missing and she uncovers the significance of the data she spends her days entering into the system. While this conceit keeps the narrative moving along at a quick and compelling clip, it is actually the least interesting aspect of the book. Josephine’s growing alienation and solipsistic anomie—the oppressive sense that her emotional responses are irreparably out of step with the world she inhabits, and the faceless anonymity of the non-persons who surround her— make The Beautiful Bureaucrat read less like Kafka, and more convincingly like a reboot of Camus’ The Stranger, aimed at the particular anxieties of our current moment. Without giving anything away, Phillips’ protagonist is doomed because, despite her best efforts, she simply can’t play the game—she wants something else, something more, but in the world she inhabits it’s impossible to even conceive what that might be.

In this way, Bureaucrat adds itself to a developing conversation around Camus’ text. First there was Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, which tells the story of the brother of the nameless Arab murder victim in The Stranger, and now there is Phillips’ text. What both of these novels accomplish, briskly, is to update Camus’ tale while affirming its relevance. As in The Stranger, both novels present a protagonist alienated from the system of values to which he or she belongs—and yet, in our present moment, we are not only afraid of being Camus’ protagonist, the murderer Meursault. We are also afraid of being Meursault’s nameless Arab victim—not just alone in the world, but faceless and forgotten (the ubiquity of the selfie is one reaction to this anxiety). As Josephine struggles to persevere against the obscurity, the fiscal insecurity, and the flattening monotony of corporate grunt work in the big city, she comes to embody this broader cultural anxiety. But the true accomplishment of Bureaucrat is to connect the anxieties of our zeitgeist to the deeper alienation that Camus identified—and that is what elevates this novel to something more abiding than a quick and satisfying read.

Bryan St. Amand is doing a Masters in Creative Writing at Kellogg College, Oxford.