Monday, October 13, 2014

The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland

Lena is the last transcriptionist at the New York Record, a newspaper clearly modeled on The New York Times, where the author had that same job for several years. Lena, a grad school dropout, spends her days alone in a room, transcribing tapes of reporters' interviews as well as stories that have been phoned in to the paper. The one reporter who treats her like a human being calls her by the wrong name. She lives in what is essentially a women's hostel--no men are allowed in the women's rooms, but they are able to check out a key to Gramercy Park, where they can spend a quite hour (if they are late getting the key back, the "housemother" chastises them severely). She hasn't dated for years and relies on literary quotations as conversation. She seems totally disengaged from "real life."

On the bus one day, Lena has a brief encounter with a blind woman. When she reads in the paper that the woman, a court reporter, has been killed after climbing into the lions' cage at the zoo, she becomes obsessed with learning more about the woman, Arlene. Chasing down information about the woman, she uses many of the somewhat questionable reporting tricks that she has witnessed journalists on the paper use--yet the process and the similarities between her life and Arlene's begin to draw Lena out of her isolation.

The Transcriptionist has an almost dreamlike quality--or perhaps it is that Lena inhabits her life as though it were a dream. Some aspects of the work environment at The Record are surreal--the paper buys survival masks for employees in lieu of a holiday party, Lena gains admittance to the room in which an elderly man sorts through obituaries by singing lines from "Now the Day Is Over." Yet Lena's gradual steps toward reclaiming her life are moving, and I recommend this book.

Favorite passage:
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

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