In a windowless building in a remote part of town, the newly employed Josephine inputs an endless string of numbers into something known only as The Database. As the days inch by, and the files stack up, Josephine feels increasingly anxious in her surroundings. When one evening her husband Joseph disappears and then returns, offering no explanation as to his whereabouts, her creeping unease shifts decidedly to dread.
It wouldn't be fair to spoil what happens...but it's both bizarre and painfully human. The Beautiful Bureaucrat isn't a thriller, exactly, but it reads like one — there's not a wasted word in the book, and it's nearly impossible to put down. Phillips is a master at evoking claustrophobic spaces, whether it's Josephine's unbearably tiny, windowless office, or the efficiency apartment she shares with her husband. It's a deeply tense book, but never a manipulative one. It's also quite funny. Phillips' sense of humor is bizarre, dark but not oppressive ... Perhaps the best part of The Beautiful Bureaucrat is the relationship between Josephine and Joseph. For writers inspired by Kafka (and Phillips, though an extremely original author, clearly is here), characters too often become stand-ins for ideas, or deliberately vague placeholders used to illustrate how society can dehumanize us. But the couple's relationship is utterly believable; they fight and laugh and make love the way people who care about each other really do. It's not for a second sentimental or treacly; it's just astoundingly real. And that's the most remarkable thing about The Beautiful Bureaucrat — it works just as well as a love story as it does a sui generis thriller. That's not to say it's a book you can easily label. Of course there are echoes of Kafka, but they're tempered by Phillips' exuberance, her humor, and her very real sense of joyful defiance. It's a surprising revelation of a book from an uncompromising author as unique as she is talented.
...[a] riveting, drolly surreal debut novel ... Phillips’s thrillerlike pacing and selection of detail as the novel unfolds is highly skilled ... Phillips makes much of the attendant Judeo-Christian symbology ... However, I often felt the symbols were trying too hard ... The characters, too, can feel generic, even cutesy at times ... Though this is a parabolic novel — working within the tradition of symbolic figures and situations — some less excitable verbs would have served the author’s style, as would the upending of readers’ expectations. What if the nameless, faceless boss were the one who smelled like candy, the pink-suited blonde the one with bad breath? ... 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 ... Readers on either side of the abortion debate (and animal rights advocates) will find rich discussion material in the startling, enigmatic ending. Ultimately, The Beautiful Bureaucrat succeeds because it isn’t afraid to ask the deepest questions. What is the balance of power and powerlessness between two people who love each other? Do individual souls matter? Can we create, should we destroy, and can we always tell the difference?
Institution and person are exchangeable terms here; life and self literally disappear into office-gray carpet and concrete. You might be tempted to utter beneath your breath, like a sacred passcode, the name Kafka, but I caution you against it. The Beautiful Bureaucrat revels in its playful and dark take on contemporary life, where everything — reality, love, relationships, the mundane — is out of proportion, and yet never loses sight of its commitment to the brazen, and perhaps stupid, curiosity of the human ... Phillips’s dazzling handle of narrative form...weaves the urgency of a thriller into an otherwise tried-and-tired marriage plot in the key of literary modernism ... Phillips’s vital prose struggles against its animations of the terrifying drabness of AZ/ZA, a tension that elevates The Beautiful Bureaucrat into a form unto itself. We get the sense that the language itself is hungry to know what it is discovering, while also afraid of what it will find, just like our heroine. At times, The Beautiful Bureaucrat behaves more like a fable dressed up in the length of the short novel, or a long novella, further hidden behind the veneer of the psychological novel, but rooted in an allegory that questions its own veracity. This is The Beautiful Bureaucrat‘s ultimate strength: a work that is honest about the fear and risk of being alive in a world increasingly dominated by algebraic functions and Excel spreadsheets that go beyond data. But The Beautiful Bureaucrat doesn’t succumb to an easy cynical apathy or patronizing, avuncular consolation. To be alive in one’s body brings with it the anxiety of knowing one will die, but the beauty and terror of life is in not knowing when. To be caught between states, between forms, and between languages opens up our selves to the world, and all the risks that come with it, and what a terrifying, but exhilarating, world it is.