Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Embodying the moral imperative

My mother's a news junkie. It started a few years after my father died. About the time we moved into our new house; we got cable and CNN was new. It took that long, I think, for her to come to terms, identify herself as an individual, and direct her energies for once to the external world. It made her feel alive to know what was happening all around her.

I stopped watching the news when my daughter was born. It was too terrible to bear. Not like I was an addict going cold turkey or anything. But The News was suddenly unimportant yet painfully threatening. It impinged on the internal world I was trying to nurture.

[I'm cured now, more or less. The kid is older, I have other survival mechanisms in play. I follow the news at a distance, and sometimes a bit closer, out of a sense of civic duty.]

The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland, reminds me how fragile we are in this world where unspeakable horrors happen 24/7. Lena is the only transcriptionist, the last one, at a major New York newspaper.
The room is the color of old opossum or new pumice, the color of newspaper without ink. Gray.It is the room where the transcriptionist, or, in the perplexing vocabulary of the corporate world, Recording Room operator, sits alone all day with a headset and a Dictaphone and transcribes all the words that have been recorded for the Record.
She survived the news frenzy that was 9/11; what undid her was the story of a woman she recognized as having met in passing, a blind woman who deliberately, knowingly, swam to her death, swam the moat at the zoo to be devoured by lions.

Amy Rowland explains that this novel
is about one lowly worker questioning the role of the newspaper as an institution, and about how newspapers are facing the challenges and the new reality of the time we’re living in. If we tell ourselves stories about ourselves in order to know who we are, then for more than a century newspapers have been the backbone of a collective sense of community. In this new world of virtual living, what will bind us together?
There's a quirky cast of journalists and other newsroom workers. Lena also befriends a pigeon on the ledge outside her window, but even that has a seamy underbelly.

One man is devoted to preserving the files of obituaries, not mere death notices, but the paeans to the news makers, most written years in advance, in anticipation of death, as if only death gives life newsworthy meaning. Recognize it when its gone.
"Obits mark the lives that define us as a nation; they embody the moral imperative of the newspaper, one that is slipping away."
You learn things about humanity from a newspaper, but very little about individuals. Thanks to social media we now know everything about individuals but this data rarely coalesces into anything bigger than itself. The Transcriptionist gently reminds the reader to see the forest, see the trees. Seize the day, do the right thing, follow your gut, live a little.

This is a loving and tender novel, that evokes the sepia tones of a bygone era, even while it's set in this century.
Lena is always disappointed anew at the room, where instead of bald, bespectacled men typing with one heavy hand and reaching into the drawer for the bourbon bottle with the other, it is the usual corporate subdivision: well-medicated activity, soundless keypads, and clusters of low-partitioned cubicles in a rectangle that spans the entire floor.
[Where does that cliche come from, Editorial with its hands on the bourbon, surely it predates Lou Grant. I've done my best to perpetuate it in the department I work in, you never know when bourbon might come in handy. Of course, we're not dealing with the heart-crushing news of the outside world, just fighting the relatively minor but daily soul-sucking battles for editorial integrity in a company that has lost sight of its raison d'ĂȘtre and is quickly spiralling down the existential vortex that portends financial, not only moral, bankruptcy. Ah, bourbon.]

Some reviews that explain this short novel better than I can:
The Rumpus
New York Times
The Millions


Suzanne Mann said...

I read this recently, and I'm still thinking about it...

Isabella K said...

I hope you liked it, Suzanne. I think this novel has a lot of things going for it.