Some Novels Put the Dramatic in the Bureaucratic

With my 91-year-old mother going through a difficult health period the past few months, I’ve been thinking about bureaucracy. I’ve sent dozens of forms and other stuff to home-health-aide agencies, hospitals, and an insurance company. I’ve exchanged countless phone calls, emails, and texts. I’ve been put on hold and shunted to other people. Etc.

Which of course means I’ve also been thinking about depictions of bureaucracy in literature — whether it be medical bureaucracy, legal bureaucracy, military bureaucracy, corporate bureaucracy, governmental bureaucracy, or other versions of the “b” word.

It can be a fraught topic for a novel, because just the thought of bureaucracy can induce feelings in readers ranging from boredom to frustration to fury. So, when an author makes something compelling and perhaps funny out of all that, well, it’s pretty impressive. And it doesn’t hurt that characters slammed by bureaucracy almost always have our sympathy.

Of course, a certain amount of bureaucracy is necessary, but there almost always seems to be too much of it! I guess it creates jobs, and gives some bureaucrats a feeling of power as they make life difficult for others. Plus lower bureaucrats are basically forced to be too bureaucratic by higher bureaucrats. (I added this paragraph after seeing and responding to J.J. McGrath’s thoughts in the comments section.)

So Much For That is among the novels that belong in this post. (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s book touches many bases, with one of them the agony of dealing with America’s medical system. A system so inhumane, convoluted, and costly/profit-driven that it can easily make sick people even sicker.

In the legal area, we have Franz Kafka’s The Trial surreally showing just how opaque, inscrutable, and unfair the “justice” system and its bureaucracy can be. There’s also Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, in which a court case grinds on for years and years.

Military bureaucracy? You’ll find that in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk. Those books mercilessly/hilariously satirize that bureaucracy, and readers feel grateful during the occasional moments they stop laughing.

Corporate bureaucracy? Certainly a strong element in such novels as Margaret Atwood’s trilogy of Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam. In those three books, we see the horrible results when corporate bureaucracy and corporate malfeasance run amok.

There’s also governmental bureaucracy, as in Dickens’ Little Dorrit, Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (of course), and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. In Piercy’s novel, Connie Ramos unfortunately struggles with the trifecta of welfare, child-custody, and mental health systems. All of which are needed by any humane society, but give Ms. Ramos more grief than help.

Last but not least: It’s not one of the Balzac novels I’ve gotten to, but that author wrote…The Bureaucrats.

What novels have you read that contain strong bureaucratic elements?

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In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece, which slams an ice-cream place’s sexualized logo, is here.