on August 11, 2015
Genres: Literary Fiction
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Confession time: I’m kind of obsessed with podcasts. As a reader, I love putting new information into my brain any way that I can — and podcasts allow me to do this in situations in which I can’t feasibly read a book. (I also suspect that, as an introvert, I like being able to listen to people talk without having to hold up my end of a conversation.) Whether I’m washing dishes, taking a walk around my neighborhood, or driving for more than 15 minutes, I probably have a podcast playing. At some point, I’ll write a post about my favorite shows, but today I’d like to shine a spotlight on one of my favorite podcasts — and a fantastic book that pairs well with it.
The Welcome to Night Vale podcast takes the form of radio broadcasts from the small desert town of Night Vale. Cecil, our deep-voiced radio personality, provides community updates about dark hooded figures, angels, mysterious lights in the sky, and a dog park that neither dogs nor people are allowed to enter. It’s deeply weird, darkly funny, and a ton of fun. However, as I’m subscribed to more podcasts than I can feasibly listen to, I got distracted last year and stopped listening — until last month, when I read a book that made me crave Welcome to Night Vale‘s creepy absurdity.
The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips is a delightfully strange debut novel about a young couple who abandons “the hinterland” to seek their fortunes in the big city. Unemployed, with funds running desperately low, Josephine takes a job in an enormous, windowless concrete building. Day after day, she inputs an endless series of numbers into “The Database” and fights a growing sense of unease about her faceless boss with the rotten breath; the fingerprint-smudged, sickly pinkish walls of her office; and a co-worker who knows far too much about Josephine’s personal life. Bit by bit, she unravels the mystery of the nature of her work, ultimately making a discovery that has ground-shaking implications.
This novel is short enough to read in a single sitting, which is lucky for readers; it’s nearly impossible to put down. Evoking a creeping sense of dread, The Beautiful Bureaucrat is a compulsively readable book about life and death, love, and the secrets within a marriage. The ending fell a bit flat for me, but I’m not sure what I would have done differently. Overall, I loved the bleak atmosphere, the building sense of suspense, and the Murakami-esque use of the surreal.
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