HITTING SHELVES #22: The Beautiful Bureaucrat

The Beautiful Bureaucrat

The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips comes out today!

It’s the story of Josephine, a young woman who moves to a massive, unnamed city and finds work as a file clerk, essentially, for a bizarre corporation. The corporation lies to her, praises her, and grooms her to become a perfect cog in the system, a Beautiful Bureaucrat. But Josephine can’t ignore the discrepancies in her files, and she can’t ignore the trouble at home: her husband keeps disappearing for no apparent reason.

With Kafka’s deep eeriness and Terry Gilliam’s stunning weirdness, Helen Phillips tells a wholly original story that will make you question your place in “the system” and your relationships with the people you love most.

We asked the author one question.

How are you celebrating the publication of The Beautiful Bureaucrat?

On the morning of August 11, the official release date of The Beautiful Bureaucrat, I will be awoken around 5:30 by either (a) a crying baby or (b) a shouting three-year-old. The racket created by (a) will then wake (b), or vice versa, so that before 6:00 a.m. I will be at the center of a two-ring circus. One ring puts everything it can get its hands on into its mouth. The other ring wants to have a book read to it, and another, and another, and another. The ringmaster, meanwhile, dreams of a cup of strong black tea, even dares to fantasize about a shower.

By 6:45, there will be Cheerios on the floor and smears of yogurt on the table. Twice the kettle will have screamed out, and twice the ringmaster will have begun to pour hot water before setting the kettle down and running to the other room to save the baby’s life. The ringmaster places both sideshows in the baby’s crib to coo and caw, laugh and claw. Steals a second to marvel at the private language of siblings—wonders how this might be captured on the written page.

Helen Phillips
Helen Phillips

Next, the daily spectacle of the husband dragging himself out of bed and into the fray. Upon the conclusion of this ritual, ringmaster leaps into the shower for thirty-nine luxurious seconds. Leaps out, dries, lotions, starts to dress (but wait, everything is in the laundry, covered with baby goo, does wearing a neon orange sports bra beneath an extra-long tank-top count as being clothed?), runs into other room in response to screams, discovers they are screams of laughter—what is the joke? The joke is that the baby’s head is a scoop of ice cream and the kid has to lick it till it’s tickled.

Babysitter arrives at 9:00, greeted with joy like a long-lost sea captain, ringmaster throws computer into backpack, steals the damp kiss of a three-year-old, the sharp kiss-bite of an eight-month-old (note to self: teach baby not to bite), millisecond kiss of husband, runs out the door, begins metamorphosis into girl-walking-alone-down-street, runs back to get forgotten phone, leaves again, runs back to get forgotten keys, leaves again.

And then. Twenty-three minutes, walking, there are people to be called and news shows to be listened to, but I need to have this thought: eight years ago I had an idea, and today a book, a book! The same feeling of impossibility that one gets seeing one’s children’s spines, their eyes. From whence these full-formed creatures?

Four hours of expensive solitude at the shared workspace, and if—lucky day—the private room is available, I can even shut the door. It would be fun to work on my next writing project, but instead I’ll be emailing my thanks around, and today of all days, that’s the best use of my hours, because the creation of a book is not a solitary act—the family and the teachers and the colleagues and the editors and the babysitters and the friends, they are all collaborators.

Twenty-five minute walk back, during which woman-in-room-of-one’s-own must morph into mother, the baby needs milk and the three-year-old needs to know where Kansas belongs in the map puzzle, there are dishes in the sink and Legos on the floor and the children are beside themselves with happiness because, throw the confetti, Mommy’s home. Steal a second to eat a huge chunk of dark chocolate, dive into the afternoon, the sunscreen and the park and the stroll, buy two cookies at the café because it’s a day to celebrate (“Why, Mommy?” “Because of the pomegranate book.” “I want to eat a pomegranate now.” “I don’t have a pomegranate.” “Why?” “Well, first, because we’re at a café, and second, because it’s not in season yet.” “Why?” “It’s just not the season.” “Why?” “I don’t know.” “Why?” “Because I don’t know.”).

At five the babysitter returns, greeted with joy like a long-lost sea captain. The ringmaster steps into the bedroom, strips off kid-stained garb, throws on dress/shoes/earrings, reemerges three minutes later (“Mommy! Why are you wearing that?”), straining to transform into author. Into the one who will soon be rejoicing on the subway with her husband (he who discussed over how many meals/walks/subway rides how to shape this elusive book; he with the singing voice that can sedate the crankiest infant to sleep). Into the one who will soon be pre-gaming, drinking with most beloved mentor Jenny Offill. Into the one who will soon be stepping into McNally Jackson and remembering freshly the first time she ever stepped into McNally Jackson, the giddy old question: what if this whole damn thing works out, and I do get to be a writer, and I do get to give a reading here someday?

Get the book here.

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