The version of New York in which “The Transcriptionist’’ is set is neither the surreal metropolis of Paul Auster in which bizarre coincidences and unfore-seen back stories rule the day nor is it the gritty mess of Richard Price or Luc Sante fame. If one had to name an antecedent for the strange, golden sheen that covers Amy Rowland’s debut novel, possibly early John Cheever, with its dreamy imaginings of commuter intrigues, or beautifully cadenced, resonant verbal exchanges, would be closest.
Entering the city Rowland creates, with its tightly strung dialogue and soulful, lonely citizens, is a memorable experience, primarily because she makes the ordinary phenomena of work, flirtation, and death seem otherworldly — even as she tells a solid story, about truth, loneliness, and, in a larger sense, growing out of one’s self.
The story is simultaneously familiar and surreal. The main character, Lena, works as the sole remaining transcriptionist of taped interviews and called-in stories at the city’s largest newspaper. One day, while taking the bus to work, a blind fellow commuter strikes up a conversation with her about books, reads her palm, and manages to utter the auspicious, poetic prognostication, “I’m looking inside your cage . . . I see words,” before Lena gets off the bus.
Strange, sure, but at the same time, what urban dweller can’t claim an unusual conversation on a commute? But the strangeness doesn’t stop there. After the woman shows up in a particularly gruesome news story (suicide by lion mauling in Central Park), Lena, who is haunted by memories of a mountain lion from her youth, becomes obsessed with the woman’s life, even violating journalistic ethics to get information. In this book, the journey to find information is more significant than the information itself.
As Lena digs into the blind woman’s past, Rowland digs into Lena, shows us who she is. Lena is familiar, we feel as if we know her — and yet, at the same time, the way she thinks, a mishmash of lines of poetry, memories, and unorthodox connections, is quintessentially idiosyncratic and unpredictable.
Many of the book’s New York locations have the quality of analogs, rather than real places, even if they bear close resemblance to actual places. This lends the book an air of mystery, as if the story were being told in soft focus. The large building where Lena lives, a home for single women with its own cafeteria and keys to Gramercy Park, doesn’t seem as if it could exist in this day and age, and yet the actual building only closed down in 2008.
The newspaper where Lena is a transcriptionist seems, because it is the biggest paper in the city, as though it should be The New York Times (the author has worked there for years, several of those as a transcriptionist) and yet it doesn’t share its name, and the Kafka-esque way in which she describes it, with its many stories of identical offices, makes it seem unreal.
And then there’s the dialogue: Rarely is office banter this poetic. Lena enters a co-worker’s office, singing, “Night is drawing nigh”; after she apologizes for interrupting, her colleague replies, “Interruptions remind us we want to return to what we are doing, that it is worthwhile.” Typical water-cooler chat? No, but the book, here and elsewhere, reminds us that we don’t always come to literature for believability.
This novel could be called fanciful if it weren’t so intensely self-aware — and if its self-awareness were not driven toward a profound point. This point, gently but firmly asserted, is that as familiar as we might feel with our world, we could be toppled in a second, and nothing, not even the smallest detail, might ever look the same again.
The ultimate choice Lena faces, driven by a last-minute plot complication, is whether she will leave the infinite towers she calls a workplace or choose to transcribe, mutely, the events and images moving in front of her. That choice, as they say, makes all the difference.