What is a beautiful bureaucrat? Hard to say. And even harder to say after reading this novel peopled by bureaucrats who do their mysterious work in a building so big it stretches from one subway station to another.
The entrances are lettered. The floors, of course, are numbered, but good luck getting off on one of the even-numbered floors, as our heroine, Josephine, determined to learn what goes on in this vast, windowless concrete structure, tries to do.
Josephine, married to Joseph David Jones ("Does it bother you that your husband has such a commonplace name?" the menacingly bland interviewer asks her when she applies for the job), so desperately needs the job, inputting data, that it hardly matters what she's doing, let alone what the data mean. Until it does.
This peculiar little book is a mash-up of a couple of types of novel — with some of the conspiratorial paranoia of Pynchon, some of the poignant comical darkness of Kafka and some of the interior tenderness of contemporary literary fiction. Although much of the story, for instance, is taken up with Josephine's job, typing names and numbers from file after file into a database, pursuing the sinister meaning of those entries while contending with creepy cartoonish characters straight out of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" (the Person With Bad Breath; the preternaturally perky, busty, stiletto-heeled Trishiffany; the ubiquitous man in a gray sweatshirt), what really matters is that Josephine and Joseph long to have a baby.
Their love — which has carried them from the Hinterland (let's assume the Midwest) and lasted through long unemployment and a series of progressively more depressing apartments sublet from strangers, emphasis on "strange" — is marked by a perfect consonance.
"Only their two minds in the entire universe contained the same specific set of images … tens of thousands of conversations and jokes. Without him she was just a lonely brain hurtling through space, laughing quietly to itself."
This essential link between them expresses itself in wordplay, often a rearranging of letters that torments Josephine in her immersion in the database's names ("EMMITT JUDD ARCHINGTON" becomes "ACHING TORN," then "CHANTING OR"), although when the inversion becomes significant ("Life. File. How had she never noticed?"), a reader may have reached acrostic fatigue.
What Helen Phillips has created is, finally, an intriguing fictional world in which love and language meet their match in routine and necessity — and who, or which, triumphs may be a reader's choice.
Ellen Akins teaches in the MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She lives in Wisconsin.