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August 12, 2015

Book Notes - Helen Phillips "The Beautiful Bureaucrat"

The Beautiful Bureaucrat

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"Riveting...Phillips's thrillerlike pacing and selection of detail as the novel unfolds is highly skilled...What makes The Beautiful Bureaucrat a unique contribution to the body of existential literature is its trajectory, as the story telescopes in two directions, both outward to post macro questions about God and the universe, and inward to post intimate inquiries about marriage and fidelity. Ultimately, The Beautiful Bureaucrat succeeds because it isn't afraid to ask the deepest questions."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In her own words, here is Helen Phillips's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat:


In the summer of 2013, I was millimeters away from abandoning the manuscript of The Beautiful Bureaucrat. It was a 350-page mess that I'd been working on for five years. The most recent version had been drafted in 2011-2012 when I was pregnant with my daughter and desperate to complete something before my life jumped off the cliff of motherhood. Then I'd avoided the manuscript for over a year while I adjusted to being a mother and to my agent's (completely valid) negative reaction to the draft I'd sent her. There were things—a lot of things—that still excited me about the material, but I couldn't see any path forward in terms of bringing it all together. I spent that summer obsessing about the book, trying to decide if I should even bother to finish it. At the end of the summer, I committed to creating one more draft, though I thought it quite likely that this one too would fall flat.

I never listened to music while writing until I started to write the new draft of The Beautiful Bureaucrat. This was in part because I had to work in public places (cafes, libraries) now that we shared our one-bedroom apartment with an enchanting one-year-old; I relied on headphones to help me create that sense of being alone inside my head.

But it was also because I needed to pull on the energy of music that I found both mysterious and comforting in order to confront the challenge of re-creating this book, condensing it down to half its length and transforming the plot. In all those many hours of writing, I listened to only two albums: Brian Eno's Music for Airports and the Yale Slavic Chorus's 2003 recording Kolo Sertsya, which I had bought at one of their holiday concerts in college—the best $8 I ever spent (I'm not sure where, or if, that album is available now). These two albums represent the two opposite poles of the book, and every time I sat down to write, I would choose which was best suited to that day's scene.

Brian Eno, Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978)

I have listened to this album so many times that not a single note of it is unpredictable to me--it feels as though I'm listening to my own heartbeat, my own breathing. Yet I still find it mysterious. This is the music of vast celestial bodies slowly rotating. It is also, incidentally, the music I listened to while in labor with both of my children. I was delighted (but not entirely surprised) to learn that Brian Eno has been creating soundscapes of ambient music for hospitals. Sign me up.

Yale Slavic Chorus, Kolo Sertsya: Near the Heart (2003)

If Eno lends The Beautiful Bureaucrat its cosmic reach, the all-women's Yale Slavic Chorus provides the human (and specifically female) element. It involves a good deal of shrieking and ululating and dissonance. In fact, listening to it now, I'm surprised that I was able to write day in and day out to its accompaniment. (Once, when I was playing the album on my laptop, my mother-in-law yelled up the stairs, "Is everything okay up there?"). Its chaos is controlled, but just barely; the close brushes with pandemonium are what bring potency to the ultimate harmony. Aside from a bit of drumming, the music is a cappella. It is is primal and throbbing, dark red with the blood of menstruation and childbirth, a call of pain, a call of ecstasy, the heaviness of life, the lightness of life, woodsmoke in the dark and a forest in sunlight, bread and cheese and apples and beer, nourishment with an acknowledgement of grief, the female force of comfort under duress. I've imagined my own subject matter for each of the tracks (none of which is in English), but I just spent some time reading the actual translations, which are pretty interesting in their own right: "The old man decides he wants to go to the dance, so he dresses up as a young man. But when he arrives, all the young girls run away, except for the littlest one, Angelina. Poor Angelina."


A few more tracks to liberate bureaucrats:

Dustin Wong, Infinite Love. This album consists of two 40-minute tracks, "Brother" and "Sister." Repetitive yet transcendent. A lone guitarist spins out a symphony with a maze of electronics at his feet, looping himself around himself. If my bureaucrat Josephine had been listening to these at her desk, she probably would have been just fine. A redeeming accompaniment to the banshees howling in the walls.

tUnE-yArDs, "Bizness." "What's the business?" Josephine's driving question for the first half of the book. Hour by hour, form by form: "Don't take my life away. Don't take my life away." The song itself catapults you out of the office and into the sun.

Andrew Bird, "Fiery Crash." When my husband and I—not unlike Josephine and her husband Joseph—were moving around among sublets due to real estate problems, we stayed in one place where the only CD was Andrew Bird's Armchair Apocrypha. We listened to it obsessively, until we got sick of it, but we kept listening. You'll find a fiery crash and a fatal premonition in The Beautiful Bureaucrat. And a face stuck to a vinyl settee. And a line starting to break up just as you were starting to say.

The Clearwings, "Screens Die, Letters Burn." Here's a track that pits paper against screen, a tension all too familiar to Josephine as she spends her days typing information from the gray files into the computer database. Listen to the longing and anxiety: "I wish everything I read didn't just blink on a screen … I prefer paper and wax, something to really take a match … This is one I'd rather burn down … I dream of fires, they don't go out." (Full disclosure: The Clearwings is the alt-folk duo comprised of my brother and sister-in-law.)

The Mountain Goats, "This Year." A hopeful song, sort of, sung through a clenched-jaw grin: "I am going to make it through this year if it kills me." And a glorious music video. This also includes one of my all-time favorite descriptions of young desperate love: "Twin high-maintenance machines." I'm grateful for the mysterious promise "There will be feasting and dancing in Jerusalem next year." Here's hoping Josephine pulls through and arrives in time for the feast.


Helen Phillips and The Beautiful Bureaucrat links:

the author's website
video trailer for the book

Full Stop review
Kirkus review
Minnneapolis Star Tribune review
New Republic review
New York Times review
Novel Enthusiasts review

Isthmus interview with the author
Slate interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)


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