Review of “The Transcriptionist” by Amy Rowland

A story in the July/August 2014 issue of Smithsonian reported that in a 24 hour period, the “New York Times” produces some 700 stories. This information barrage is joined by articles in other newspapers, the deluge of news posted online at such sites as The Huffington Post (some 1200 items a day), blogs, Facebook, Pinterest, and videos on YouTube (144,000 hours of new video each day), not to mention television. It’s a lot of information, with a lot of stories getting changed and/or lost along the way.

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In The Transcriptionist, Lena Respass, 33, is the only person with that job title remaining at “The Record,” a loosely fictional version of “The New York Times” (where the author was in fact a transcriptionist at one time in her life). Transcriptionists type up stories submitted by reporters by phone or tape when the reporter lacks internet access or is in some other situation requiring transmission assistance. Thus there are still articles dictated in the “old-fashioned” way. Each morning, Lena reads the papers and observes how the stories she transcribed have been edited down, not always for space, but sometimes to sanitize them and/or make them more politically acceptable.

What happens to all these lopped off words? Lena imagines “a landfill of edited things,” like Hart Island, a potter’s field for New York City, where the unclaimed bodies are buried in large trenches.

Much of the book concerns the ways in which Lena occupies her mind while she is engaged in rote typing. Because she was a graduate student in English literature, she is constantly reminded of snatches of poetry or great novels. These musings are invariably melancholy, which suit her mood. She is particularly taken with a poem by Paul Celan, the great Holocaust poet, who wrote, in “There was Earth Inside Them” of the prisoners forced to dig mass graves. The poem not only references the burial pits that appear both literally and figuratively in the story, but also the loneliness and despair of meaningless repetitive activity.

Part of Lena’s sadness also stems from the fact that she spends all day listening to people’s tragedies. She has this in common with a blind court reporter she met on the bus one day. The woman, Arlene Lebow, subsequently turned up in a story Lena transcribed about Arlene’s death. Arlene had sneaked into the lion’s den at the Bronx Zoo, was mauled, and partly devoured. Later, her body was lost from the hospital.

Lena becomes obsessed with the story, because she had met the woman, and because the woman’s story was so close to her own. They had a number of things in common – they were even both very affected by the short story “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury, about lions devouring people whose lives seem meaningless. Lena feels like she too is being devoured, that she is being erased, by all the words and stories with which she is bombarded:

I have letters in my bloodstream, nut graphs in my gut, headlines around my heart. It usurps my soul.”

Eventually, Lena finds out what happened to Arlene, and has to decide whether her own life is worth saving.

Discussion: This ambitious novel tries to be a lot of things, but I felt like it didn’t end up being any of them. What it wasn’t most of all, in my opinion, was what the author stated it was in the publicity material:

It 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.”

I thought that was a very minor, minor theme. Or maybe it just seemed minor because it was only one of a plethora of other themes, including a rather odd romance; an unethical reporter; a missing reporter; living with the threat of terrorism; homelessness; alienation; invisibility; condition of prisoners; and even animal well-being. None of them receive enough attention, so all of it just struck me as confusing. It had me spouting snatches of poems as well, from Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”:

With tremulous cadence slow … bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

. . .

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

Evaluation: I was not much taken with this story, but I think the author shows a lot of promise.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Algonquin Books, a division of Workman Publishing, 2014

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8 Responses

  1. You have to give it to her…it is creative. But it sounds like her initial idea morphed out of control. I don’t think I’m all that interested…

  2. Jill, I definitely liked this quiet novel more than you. I really liked what you wrote here –” They had a number of things in common – they were even both very affected by the short story “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury, about lions devouring people whose lives seem meaningless. Lena feels like she too is being devoured, that she is being erased, by all the words and stories with which she is bombarded.”

  3. I can see where she would get tired of hearing tragic stories and would need to fill her mind with something but reading those thoughts would probably bore me.

  4. Too bad this one did not work out. I wanted a SQUEEEE out of you.
    BUT, I have not given this one two seconds of my attention but your review makes me think that the story is pretty interesting. Too bad it tried to be too many things at once.

  5. Based on your review, I think I’ll skip this one. It sounds really depressing!

  6. Shoot. I was looking forward to this, but now I think I’ll let it sit for a while. I’m disappointed that you were disappointed.

  7. I have to say, I love the cover. But it’s always a shame when the author doesn’t manage to make you care as much about her theme as she cares about it.

  8. I’ve been seeing a lot of this one but it looks like an easy one for me to skip!

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