The Beautiful Bureaucrat
(Henry Holt and Co., 2015)
Helen Phillips’s The Beautiful Bureaucrat may not be the only novel this season to exhibit a certain amount of nausée in the face of big data—Louisa Hall’s Speak is one, and Franzen’s Purity looms large as another—but it is, to my knowledge, the only such novel to feature on its cover an enormous pomegranate.
Because secretly, it’s a book about fruit.
The Beautiful Bureaucrat centers on Josephine Anne Newbury and her husband Joseph Jones. Poor, evicted, and sublet-hopping, the pair of them—unbeknownst to each other—land data-entry jobs in an impersonal and mysterious bureaucratic complex. As the novel progresses we discover that their Database has a controlling (or at least predictive) power over life and death. Everyone’s genesis has a file. The Database can tell you on what dates you progressed from zygote to blastocyst to embryo to fetus; it will tell you the date that you die. Joseph, who works entering information about conception, frequently stays at the complex all night to try and fake a record for the baby he and Josephine wish to conceive. Josephine, meanwhile, has no idea where Joseph has gone, and in his absence is seized by panic (a panic exacerbated by her revelations as to the Database’s purpose and her role there: the Thanatos to Joseph’s Eros, she spends eight hours a day cross-checking and entering dates of death). The novel ends with an adrenaline-thumping chase, Josephine desperately seeking Joseph, his file in her hand, his doomsday clearly marked. Joseph survives—happily—but the pregnancy he successfully engineered is discovered and refiled as a Processing Error. They are both fired; Josephine miscarries in the staff toilet.
So far, Mediterranean fruits haven’t entered much into the early reviews. Critics are trumpeting the novel’s Kafka allusions, its “thriller-like pace,” its anagrams, puns. A few have described The Beautiful Bureaucrat as either a species of office fiction (think Ed Park’s Personal Days; Dave Eggers’s The Circle; David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King) or as a capital-E existential novel along the lines of The Trial or 1984. In fact, however, it’s neither.
Secretly, it’s a book about fruit.
In office lit, the dreariness and protocol-heavy impersonality of admin work act as foils to showcase the comic idiosyncrasies of the administrators themselves; in The Beautiful Bureaucrat, Josephine is unremarkable in every way. After a palm reading she identifies strongly with her fortune—later revealed to be “everyone’s fortune”—and in the office she looks no different from many of her coworkers. She has “the same sagging cardigan and sensible shoes, the same average height and average weight and unremarkable face, the same capillaries showing in the eyes, the same polite yet exhausted expression.” She’s a phlegmatic everywoman, outwardly closer to a Joseph K. or a Winston Smith, and yet she isn’t exactly an existential figure either: unlike the deliberately pedestrian heroes of dystopian fiction, Josephine doesn’t strive to find meaning in a godless world, or battle the dehumanizing omnipresence of a System. Questions of who controls the Database, or why it exists in the first place, are completely elided. The Database presents as oddly neutral, almost benign: if her sense of isolation at the office weren’t exacerbated by Joseph’s unexplained absences, I’m not convinced the Database would bother Josephine much at all.
So. Not office lit, and not existential. If evaluated exclusively in either of those terms The Beautiful Bureaucrat would be a flop. It lacks the humor of office lit—in fact the attempts at levity are a real weakness, often forced and flat, as when on the first page Josephine quips that her future boss’s facelessness was “perfect” because his “appearance probably deterred other applicants!”—and it lacks the terror, the true absurdity, the creeping malignance of the 20th century’s anti-totalitarian fiction. Of course it draws on both traditions, but that’s not what The Beautiful Bureaucrat is. Because secretly, it’s a book about—
Enter the pomegranates.
And some candles with the Virgin Mary stuck on.
A third of the way through the novel there’s an odd episode, which Jamie Quatro in the New York Times reads as an inverted temptation-of-Adam scene, and which she criticizes for clumsy symbology. This is the day after Joseph’s first unexplained absence: returning to her dark basement flat, Josephine is surprised to find him standing in their doorway, holding “a large red fruit in his right hand.” She doesn’t recognize the fruit at first and is angry with herself when he names it. They argue about his absence, eat dinner in the light of cheap church candles, and Josephine initiates sex. Joseph is suspiciously unresponsive. When she persists and he finally comes, Josephine calls out his social security number in triumph (long story), and then there follows an exceedingly peculiar one-line paragraph:
It was time to cut the pomegranate.
Which she does, though she makes a hash of it, jabbing it with a steak knife and shooting “thick red blobs of liquid” onto the cabinets and the wall.
We later infer that Joseph is reluctant to have sex because it’s too early; the timing won’t work with the fake date of conception he’s rigged in the Database. Still, the pomegranate episode is odd. “I often felt the symbols were trying too hard,” comments Quatro, suggesting this scene (“an inversion of the Genesis story, ‘Adam’ giving ‘Eve’ the forbidden fruit, as well as a nod to Persephone”) overplays the existential questions about free will vs. omnipotence with which she characterizes the novel.
But the pomegranate isn’t merely an underworld-friendly substitute for the apple, and it’s uncommon to see pomegranates growing from the tree of knowledge in representations of Eden. Instead it appears more often in images of the Virgin and Child: in the infant’s hands the split red globe foreshadows the suffering and spilt blood of Christ, Mary’s sorrow at the loss of her son, and Christ’s later resurrection from the dead. In medieval and Renaissance paintings Christ frequently holds the fruit to his chest like a sacred heart. When the child is sitting on Mary’s lap, moreover, the fruit—spherical, fleshy, broken—is also held before Mary’s womb, as in Botticelli’s Madonna of the Pomegranate (1487). The gory, many-seeded fruit therefore makes an ambivalent symbol, odd as the episode in which it appears, because it simultaneously celebrates Mary’s fertility and foreshadows Christ’s death, as if to say both the fruit of her womb and her womb itself will one day be split open. And though the intimation of the resurrection is always there, it’s often overwhelmed by a mood of sorrow, for the Christian teleological impulse—the temptation to read the bloody end in the beginning—leaves one with the sensation that Mary is holding not her son, but a postponed and holy miscarriage.
Pomegranates: the fruit of the dead. Or the fruit, to invoke an ancient pun, of the tomb. In the pomegranate scene when Josephine asks Joseph where he was, he claims he was working. “‘It was urgent,’ he repeated. ‘An emergency … There was a deadline.’” Flash back twenty pages, where the word “deadline” appears conspicuously, thanks to a memo that has one of Josephine’s co-bureaucrats cracking up in the halls:
“Come on,” the bureaucrat said, growing impatient, pointing at the emboldened DEADLINE at the top of the page.
But it read deadling rather than deadline.
Josephine released a small “ha,” relieved to be in on the joke. deadling. What an awful word: it sounded like dead babies.
“A typo, I guess,” she said.
A pomegranate-worthy foreshadowing if ever there was. As we discover in the novel’s final pages, Joseph accidentally triggers the processing of his own death paperwork when—via a bit of sloppy typing—a date he enters pertaining to his child’s embryonic development drifts down into the field of paternal death. The bureaucrats eventually Wite-Out his error, but in so doing they also trigger Josephine’s miscarriage. And so Joseph’s early choice of words takes on a terrible irony: the reason he stays at work, his deadline, the decision to fake the paperwork to conceive their child, will later become a deadling in both senses. A typo and a dead baby. Yet this foreshadowing has a Christian twist and not an Orwellian one: after all, the baby dies to save Joseph’s life. It was preordained to die, it must die, as compensation for his original sin. (Sorry: his error.) So it’s hardly surprising when we read that, the morning after pomegranates, Josephine looks at her husband and declares with some melancholy: “I just want to feel immaculate for a few minutes a day.” Nor is it totally strange when, as the final mistake is being corrected and the baby is about to die, the Wite-Out-wielding bureaucrat paraphrases Julian of Norwich’s visitation from Christ (in which Christ reassures the saint that she needn’t feel guilty over either original sin or the sacrifice he made in response to it). “‘An annoyance, to be sure,’” says the bureaucrat. “‘A touch of heartache. But all shall be well and all shall be well and all shall be well. Why don’t you hand over those files.’”
Joseph couldn’t have picked a better fruit.
In the end, Quatro was partly right. The episode does touch on Christian paradoxes of predestination, and those same paradoxes do underwrite many of the existential novels (with their characters paralyzed by confrontations with absolute power) to which the more Kafka-happy metaphors of The Beautiful Bureaucrat are indebted. Yet I for one could have done with more, not less, of this type of religious symbology, which brings the writing closer to Phillips’s remarkable debut of fables And Yet They Were Happy (Leapfrog Press, 2011), and closer still to what I think is the emotional heart of the book: the anxiety and fear that many young women experience as they embark on the humbling, often terrifying, attempt to make life. I wasn’t persuaded by the Database, by Josephine’s creepy-yet-two-dimensional co-workers, or the workplace revulsion she claims to feel yet quickly gets over. The unpleasantness she attributes to the office is too clearly a manifestation of her personal concerns, and the moments where we’re meant to be held in suspense are perhaps too easy to unpick. But the symbols and scenes that touch upon infertility directly—especially the gradual silencing of the baby, who has for some time repeated Josephine’s own thoughts back to her in anagrams (file, life, life, file)—these drop the thriller-ish pretense and add a note of inevitability that is tremendously and tragically powerful. The baby’s silence is more moving for our awareness of what, in time, that silence will come to mean.
The fruit episode, far from an awkward drop-in, is central to a novel intent on reclaiming salvation from a genre built around its impossibility. Josephine’s life marks a journey that circles backwards in philosophical time, from the existential despair of a Joseph K. towards the faith-based acceptance of a St. Joseph. And while to say The Beautiful Bureaucrat is secretly a novel about fruit was perhaps a bit cheeky of me, to call itanovel about fruition is not. It’s a mythologically smart and frequently tender look at maternal grief, at Marian sorrow, and at the realization that we have very little influence over the forces of life and death. Nor could it matter less whether Josephine cedes her agency to big data and genetics, to God, or simply to a nature red in tooth and claw: what matters is the end that fulfills the beginning. The error will be corrected, the sin forgiven, and the couple will journey together past the eternal files towards eternal life. “She dared to open her eyes,” reads the first line of the final paragraph. “Any minute now they would step forward in the brilliance toward the exit sign.”
TARA TOBLER is a freelance writer, a reviewer, and a fiction editor at And Other Stories. She lives in the U.K.