A Tightrope Walk Over the Abyss

Karen Russell talks to Helen Phillips about her weird, beautiful debut novel.

Karen Russell, left, and Helen Phillips.

Photo by by Michael Lionstar, photo by Andy Vernon

Listen, let me start by saying that I don’t envy anybody who had to write flap jacket copy for Helen Phillips’ debut novel for adults, The Beautiful Bureaucrat. How to describe it? In a way, The Beautiful Bureaucrat is a sort of urban bildungsroman/existential detective story. Two newlyweds from “the hinterland,” Joseph and Josephine, move to a narrow sublet in a city that, like a city in a dream, both is and is not New York. Josephine tries to feel grateful for her job in a windowless compound, where she inputs an infinite number string into “The Database.” Soon after she becomes employed, her husband begins to disappear for lengthening intervals of time.

While it may have DNA in common with other urban work and life and love stories, with Kafka and Shirley Jackson and Haruki Murakami and the Coen brothers, it really is a new species of tale. It’s a joyride that takes some devastating turns, tracing the Möbius strip of faith and doubt in oneself, and in one’s partner. It’s a very weird, very beautiful, very honest book about the surreal business of working in a city, living in a fertile and dying body, and loving another mortal.

I read this novel in an afternoon, and then I read it again. At 180 pages, its word count is inversely proportional to its distilled, dreamlike power. (Phillips is also the award-winning author of a wonderfully strange and spare, “out of hopeful green stuff woven” short-story collection, And Yet They Were Happy, and a novel for children, Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green.) A scene where the young couple eats canned chickpeas by candlelight, in Phillips’ hands, becomes fantastical and unsettling; an office colleague named Trishiffany is at once goofy and menacing, a doctor’s visit discloses a miracle to Josephine in the harshest fluorescence. Readers follow Josephine on a tightrope walk over the abyss, where the stakes are total, and the prose is exuberant and taut, dire and playful. It was huge fun to ask Phillips questions about her first novel via email. –Karen Russell

Karen Russell: I have had the damnedest time describing this novel to people. If you default to mere plot summary, it feels like such a betrayal of the novel’s poetry and mystery. It conveys zero about the book’s marvelous tonal synthesis of light and darkness. How did you handle the impossible “what is your book about” question? And how did the answer change during the years you spent with Joseph and Josephine?

Helen Phillips: I took to telling people I was writing a “poetic thriller” about a woman who gets a data entry job in a big, windowless building and then her husband begins to disappear. That served to both answer and evade the question.

The tricky thing was that I wanted to give my full attention to the precision/intensity of the language, and to the big questions I needed to explore, and to creating a dynamic, engrossing, high-stakes plot with compelling characters. For a long time in the seven-year writing process, those various desires felt at odds. Six years in, I had a baggy, boggy 350-page draft that was unsuccessful on all fronts. (Even my ever-gracious agent was forced to describe this draft as “very heavy and bleak.”) I nearly abandoned the book altogether. But after a summer spent driving myself and my husband crazy, I decided that I would write one more draft, dammit. I recreated the book from the ground up, halving its length and saving only the phrases and images and scenes that seemed absolutely essential.

We meet Josephine and Joseph in the early days of their marriage, facing their first crisis. What is it about marriage that magnetizes you as a writer?

In the months leading up to my marriage (many years ago! I was only 25, which seems outrageously young to me now!), I found myself obsessing about death more than ever before. It was the first deliberate thing I’d done in my life that had an anticipated expiration date of “When You DIE.” And the future, which had always flickered with infinite potentiality, now took on a more solid form—I was beginning a particular life rather than vaguely contemplating any number of possible lives. Thankfully, I have not found marriage to be at all the weighty state I thought it might be. But I did set out to explore the relationship between marriage and mortality in The Beautiful Bureaucrat.

Joseph and Josephine are two idiosyncratic personalities who have to negotiate some pretty universal experiences as a couple. If the book is about marriage and work and life and death, in what sense is it also maybe about facelessness/anonymity and collective/individual identity?

On the one hand, I imagined Josephine and Joseph as an “everycouple” of sorts, struggling with those basic, even primal, questions that we all have to answer—Where am I going to take shelter? Who will care for me, and for whom will I care? And what are we going to do about the cockroaches?

On the other hand, it is specificity and idiosyncrasy that make us love a character, and so we must know that Joseph hates movies with happy endings, or that Josephine just wants “to feel immaculate for a few minutes a day.”

I often find that it is the moments of greatest specificity that grant a character the greatest universality—one’s own particular insecurities and quirks respond to a character’s particular insecurities and quirks, different though they may be.

As a longtime New Yorker myself, I thought The Beautiful Bureaucrat does such a superb job of capturing that exhilarating, terrifying vertigo of the first season in a big city. Why did you make the choice to keep the book’s location ambiguous? I wonder what your own experience was like—did you move to New York?

The choice to keep the location ambiguous came late in the game, and I owe it to my genius of an editor, Sarah Bowlin, who in the final round of revisions suggested removing the few small references that pegged the story to New York. She found them jarring because they undercut the timeless, placeless setting I had worked so hard to create. For my friendless newcomers (as for newcomers throughout time), the unnamed city serves as both precipice and promise—a place of danger and possibility in equal measure.

I moved to Brooklyn 11 years ago, and spent that first year in a state of bedazzled anxiety. Now I find it hard to imagine ever leaving. Ultimately, the book is a kind of dark ode to city life. The exhilaration of the city, the surprising moments of mercy offered by sighting a hawk in an urban park or overhearing a snippet of tender conversation.

What gave you such insight into the windowless world of “pinkish, ill-colored” walls, weekday despair, and data entry?

For four years I had a job at a public university that involved a ton of data entry during admissions season. I actually liked the job fine, but I always dreaded the busiest time of year, and for those weeks I had to sink into a bit of a bleak zombie state in order to complete the task. (Also, I didn’t have a window.)

Josephine often struggles to get a bead on the attitudes of those around her: “She couldn’t read his tone, irritated or charmed, weary or yearning.” Is Josephine more tone-deaf than other people? Or do you see Josephine as a person who has a heightened sensitivity to the many fast-moving emotions underlying even a seemingly banal conversation?

Josephine’s uncertainty in these moments is due not to tone-deafness but, yes, to her perception of multiple simultaneous meanings, of the fragility of language, of the complexity of any single human interaction—all the overlapping, indecipherable layers of give-and-take, push-and-pull, truth-telling and truth-twisting. In this time of disorientation due to the new city/new job/new marital tension, Josephine’s anxiety casts doubt onto all of her assumptions. She has entered a weird world, and she needs to be hyper-alert, hyper-attuned, mistrustful of her own first impressions. (Don’t we all?)

On a related note, at one point Josephine wonders if her marriage to Joseph is coming to an end, and this seems frighteningly plausible, even though nothing particularly cataclysmic has occurred between them. I wondered if fiction is the zone where you can grapple honestly with all the possibility and flux. Does it require you to be more exquisitely attuned to the fragility of daily life? Your book reads to me like a Pinard horn—a fetal stethoscope that you hold up not only to Josephine’s life in progress, but to your readers’ lives as well, and by the book’s conclusion, to our entire planet spinning in the darkness.

I love the Pinard horn metaphor—I was trying to make the story spiral outward and inward at the same, toward the most cosmic as well as the most intimate interactions. Do I feel exquisitely attuned to fragility in my daily life? Certainly. This can be a bit of a hazard as a mother. My fiction brain spins out horrific scenarios while my mother brain looks on with fascinated terror. I try to expunge the wild anxiety of the world—or, to borrow your more positive spin, the glorious precariousness—in my writing so it doesn’t darken my daily life too much.