Beautiful Bureaucrat

By Helen Phillips, The Beautiful Bureaucrat is a sweet, gross, clever, sexy, funny, provocative short novel. Or maybe it's an extended anecdote, a philosophical puzzle in literary clothing. The language is lovely, simple, surprising. Chapter 16, for instance:

She knew he wouldn't be in the cellar when she returned. She knew the rooms would be sunk in shadows, the bathtub haunted, and she would sit in the dark the whole night, starving alone. Her joints ached, or maybe it was her brain. She limped up the block toward the sublet.

He was there. The lamps were on. Something steamed on the stove. She stood in the doorway in disbelief.

He came over to her. He smiled the smile of someone who didn't spend his days typing death dates into a database. He relieved her of her bag.

"You look like you need a hug," he said.

She felt like an alien. As though she had never before been exposed to the way things are done on Earth: that you can return home to someone who cares for you, that a few overused words can hurt your heart with their appropriateness, that your muscles can soften into the muscles of another human being.

"I got you something," he said. She wanted to cry out when he pulled away from her.

He went to the fridge and returned with a Coca-Cola in a bottle. Coca-Cola in a bottle was one of her favorite things. He twisted the cap off with the bottom of his T-shirt and handed it to her. He was good as gold, good as ever. She drank hard, the carbonation burning her throat.

That you could have a need; that someone could bring you something to fulfill this need.

He reminded her of a funny story from their past involving an old friend, someone mistaking vodka for water, connected to a later story in which Joseph disguised Guinness in a Coca-Cola bottle; you had to be there. She was shocked by her laughter. She stroked the cool perfect lines of the Coca-Cola bottle.

Oca ola otto.

"I hate my job," she allowed herself to say, as though she meant it in the way people usually mean it. "You hate yours too, right?" Misery loves company.

"It's boring," he said. "But it's great, in a way."

She was not in the mood for him to elaborate.

Later, they sat on the couch, eating carrots. She leaned her head against his skull while he chewed. She listened to his jaw moving. She liked to hear the sounds of his skeleton.

Philosophical spirituality meets animal physicality through meticulous observation of everyday life — plus the surreal. From Chapter 29, e.g.:

The day was becoming more golden by the minute. Glimmering fall weather that denied death as sunbeams glossed dying leaves. On a log poking out of the radiant water, three turtles stretched their necks up toward the light. She imitated them, the sun a tranquilizing balm on the hidden skin of her throat. But then she tipped her chin back down, frightened by the lulling brilliance of this day, the inappropriate and offensive beauty of the world.

Plot? Hard to identify. Character development? Skimpy. Atmosphere and imagery? Extraordinary.

(cf. perhaps On the Shore (2006-11-07), Kavalier and Clay (2006-12-29), Portrait of the Artist (2007-02-08), Dhalgren (2011-07-23), Winter's Tale (2014-10-24), ...) - ^z - 2016-06-23