The Beautiful Beaureaucrat by Helen Phillips

You’d think a book this slim wouldn’t be so hard to properly review. There were things I really, really liked about it, primary among them being the all too realistic depiction of frustration and desperation at joblessness and alienation in a city that should be providing opportunities but is, instead, serving primarily as an exhausting exercise in degradation and squalor. And I really enjoyed how Helen Phillips described Josephine’s sexual and procreative longings. But.

I suppose I ought to say that I’ve never really cared for the Haruki Murakami strain of surrealism, in which atmosphere this book is well-entrenched. It disconnects me as a reader from the very human, very real struggles of our protagonists, without then replacing it with anything interesting, as a whole-heartedly fantasy or sci-fi or even horror novel might. Call it a sort of Reader’s Uncanny Valley Syndrome: I can manage well with outright differences but not with things that are only an eighth step away from correct. It just seems unnecessary, and way too deus ex, if we’re being brutally frank. World-building is one of my favorite aspects of good genre novels: unfortunately, subtle surrealism is far more interested in world-bending for convenience’ sake, it feels to me.

As to the plot itself, one thing that really bothered me was how very run-of-the-mill I found the central conceit of the bureaucracy to be. I thought it was painfully obvious what Joseph’s secret was because, OMG, this is not a hard puzzle to solve (again, I was irritated as a genre stalwart with a conundrum in a “literary” novel that anyone with half a brain ought to be able to figure out quickly.) And I thought the denouement, while a minor tragedy, less compelling because at no point did you think Josephine would choose differently. She suffered no internal conflict, which surprised me as she was hardly the kind of character who never entertained a negative thought.

Anyway. I think it would have worked better if the conceit was finessed more and the feelings elided less. An interesting debut from a promising writer, but not a great novel.

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