Sunday
Oct052014

The Transcriptionist

By Amy Rowland


 

Algonquin
May 2014
978-1616202545

Reviewed by Nick Kocz


 

Lena Repass, the protagonist in Amy Rowland's debut novel, The Transcriptionist, is quite possibly the last transcriptionist working at a major metropolitan newspaper. At the Record, New York's "top of the heap" daily, she sits in a "room [that] is the color of old opossum or new pumice, the color of newspaper without ink," transcribing two-tape interviews with a state senator about his prostatectomy and the articles reporters phone in about dueling conventions of physicists, one group convening around the topic "The Theory of Everything," the other banding around "The Theory of Nothing."

Lena is remarkably proficient: "The tape turns around its spool, and the voices go on and on; the sound comes through her earbuds, as if it has to travel no distance at all, as if the voices originate in her ear and bloom there." And therein lies the heart of the problem — plugged into her Dictaphone all day, listening and retyping absurd and horrific stories, she fears she is losing her interiority. "I thought I was being erased, that's what I imagined was happening with the transcription. That the recorded words were leaking in through my ears, erasing everything inside me," she says.

Though one might chalk up Lena's malaise to career burnout, her despair takes on an existential twist. Her newspaper runs an article about a blind woman who broke into the Bronx Zoo and swam across a moat into the lions' den in order to be devoured. Lena recognizes the woman pictured in the accompanying photograph. Days before, perhaps the very day of the mauling, she shared a bus seat with the woman, Arlene Lebow. Lena was suffering from a migraine when they met, and Arlene comforted her: "The woman lightly pressed the web of skin between Lena's thumb and index finger. The two of them sat silently for a full minute or more, and Lena realized that although she still had a headache, she didn't feel as dizzy."

On the bus, they had talked and discovered they worked similar jobs: Arlene was a court reporter; like Lena, she spent her days typing out other people's thoughts. "We can't keep up with the suffering of others. We have to close ourselves off. How else can we survive?" Arlene asked.

 

One is tempted to compare Rowland's novel to the work of Paul Auster. On the surface, this comparison seems apt (both writers traffic in chance encounters, New York locales, and themes of identity, memory, language, and writing), but it is unfair to Rowland because the emotional intensity of her prose and her powers of description outpace anything Auster has achieved in recent years.

Several things make Rowland's novel hum. First, she offers a good sense of the workaday life at the Record, a newspaper that bears the hallmarks of being a stand-in for Rowland's own place of employment, The New York Times. Callous, self-important reporters, editors, and publishers impose themselves throughout the novel. Rowland's eye is unflinching. She reports on the hypocrisy of a newspaper that declares itself "the voice of the people, the voice for the people," yet willfully allows the Pentagon to screen and censor its stories. As one reporter admits, "our souls are full of ink."

Lena's love interest, a young-ish Metro reporter on the make, is described as "handsome in a mannequin sort of way, young, tan, unlike most fluorescent-tinted reporters. The transcriptionist has always been a bit suspicious of his skin, which seems as smooth and odorless as dry ice, as if he has undergone plastination."

A good catch? Perhaps. Though for the first third of the novel he keeps calling Lena "Carol."

Rowland's absurdity is effective because it is delivered without commentary or attitude, and her juxtaposition of the glitz and glamour of wealth with the blood and slaughter of war is reminiscent of Ben Fountain. The stories Lena transcribes are varied. A society page piece details a West Palm Beach wedding reception where designers re-created "a winter scene from Doctor Zhivago inside the Ritz-Carlton with three hundred white-painted trees and forty thousand white orchids." Meanwhile, in Baghdad, a suicide bomber's head is recovered on the grounds of the open-air market he obliterated.

Sometimes, Lena just can't take it anymore: "It's not their fault, Lena says to herself, that the massive amount of information, and the continual cycle of commentary, has blunted all meaning":

The news cycle now has no recovery time, we are bombarded with so much news that it has lost its meaning and people will look for signposts that they touch like rosaries to order their world, repetition without affect. It did not take long for news of war to be added to the rosary, touched but not felt.

A pompous, predatory reporter who had been embedded with a U.S. Marines unit in Iraq declares, "I was the lens, no, the organ, the organ through which the moral view of the marines was made visible." The moral vision of the marines? What the hell does that even mean? But this is entirely Rowland's point: words beget not meaning but arrogant statements of grandeur and self-importance that eventually lead to disinformation and the disintegration of meaning.

In one of the interviews Lena transcribes, a shopping mall developer insists he is not a shopping mall developer but a builder of "a vertical luxury experience": "Each of my properties has its own intellectual soul. That's why in Harlem we are building a residential property that evokes a giraffe."

 

Much of The Transcriptionist traces Lena's attempts to reconcile herself with Arlene's suicide. Follow-up news coverage of the incident is slim, but Lena can't let it die. As Lena tells a colleague, "She killed herself in the lions' den, or had the lions do it. And I can't help thinking now, what if she was asking me something and I wasn't listening. It — she haunts me."

To make matters worse, Arlene's body disappears from the morgue due to an egregious filing error. Passing herself off as a reporter, Lena interviews zoo security guards and surreptitiously visits the deceased's apartment looking for clues to the reasons she chose to end her life. She travels to an upstate animal sanctuary where the attacking feline is now being treated for what appears to be a case of post-traumatic stress. Not surprisingly, the lion refuses to answer Lena's questions.

Lena interviews Arlene's surviving sister, Ellen, who mistakenly believes Lena is inquiring about a major discovery she has just made. Ellen has just identified Chaucer's copyist, or scrivener. It's the capstone on her career as a Chaucer scholar, an achievement involving painstaking handwriting analysis of the surviving manuscripts and ledgers, and as impressive as the discovery is, she knows nothing else about the scrivener besides his name. When Lena politely asks further about the copyist's identity, Ellen responds, "What else can we know?"

 

Above all else Rowland chronicles the zeitgeist, returning us to the scary and absurd years immediately following 9/11 when the nation fixated on anthrax scares, fears of dirty bomb attacks, and the Northeast Blackout of 2003. Her newspaper does away with its annual holiday party and uses the savings to gift its employees with "escape hoods, or SCBAs, self-contained breathing apparatuses" to be donned "in the event of a biological emergency."

Three men explain to an auditorium of Record employees how to use the hoods:

The men look like burly flight attendants giving the instructions that will not save a single soul in the event of a real emergency. Those with beards, goatees, and claustrophobia are urged to come forward at the end and "we will help you tighten your hoods." Those allergic to latex are advised not to take one because "we don't know exactly what these are made of." People practice putting them on, and the room takes on the look of a hazmat convention.

As everyone files out of the auditorium clutching their Evolution escape hood boxes, the understanding is that if by chance the hoods are effective, the chosen survivors will not be the meek or the poor, but the quick-fingered workers without facial hair or latex allergies.

There's a loud gaudy glamour to Rowland's New York, where, at one point, Lena "joins the masses walking under blinking billboards and tickertapes, numbed by neon, walking north, just walking." She lives in a Salvation Army rooming house, a "place of limbo" just off Gramercy Park where residents camp out by the stairwell windows in hopes of glimpsing Julia Roberts stroll outside on the neighboring building's rooftop terrace. "Isn't this city just neat?" asks one of Lena's fellow residents. "I wonder if she'll see us!"

It is great, but that is not the point of Rowland's novel, which ends on a nice note about the "subversive power of silence." Comparing Chaucer's time to our own, Ellen says, "There were so many manuscripts to be copied; a codex was such a laborious object to produce. Not like now, when we're drowning it words." This is depressing, because as Rowling shows us in this remarkable novel, it's not as if language can save us.