The Transcriptionist was not what I expected and I mean this in the best of ways. It is a New York City novel, but resides in unknown places and lives that have yet to be portrayed in fiction.* Lena is a transcriptionist at the New York Record–a position that seems a relic in our digital age. In 2003, the city is living in a time that seems both close and faraway to the present day reader. Post 9/11 concerns are red hot (the staff of the Record are absurdly given “escape hoods” in case of further mass emergency) and the daily news cycles whirl around Lena as she sits alone on the eleventh floor transcribing recorded interviews and reports from abroad.
She lives in this shadow state, always reading the news she knows over the news that makes it into print, and not just reading the shadows, but also living in them, somewhere between waiting and searching. This is what chills her…
Lena lives alone in a room she rents where the sink is also in her room. She keeps to herself and even the one person, Russell, who speaks to her socially at work thinks her name is Carol (a mistake she leaves uncorrected). Lena is filled with words and language so much that her conversational skills are composed mostly of quotations.
But then everything changes. A news report on page 3 of the Record catches her eye. A woman is mauled to death by the lions at the Bronx Zoo one night. The death is a suspected suicide. Lena sees the woman’s photo and identifies her as the blind woman who spoke to her three days prior on the city bus. With a migraine, Lena didn’t pay the woman full attention, but now in death Lena is rapt.
The parallels that Lena finds between herself and the dead blind woman, begin to make her move out of the shadows. Words and language compose her life, but as she attempts to find more information over the death, she quietly begins to unravel the mundane life she had been living and the contradictions at the Record and the world around her.
In Lena, debut novelist Amy Rowland has constructed a character that is able to see beneath what has become everyday life. As a former transcriptionist herself, Rowland provides wonderful information and details on the goings-on of a major newspaper. She portrays a liminal space where technology and the human touch are still needed. The Recording Room where Lena works is still made up of audio tape, telephones, and people. Dictations are important and the accuracy of a person’s ear is paramount to correct copy. Lena is part of the Record‘s “institutional memory.”
Lena finds in the blind woman a person who can see more than anyone else. Before reading the short news report, Lena would have continued on in her mundane, liminal space of the shadows until she faded away and was forgotten. Instead, she wanted to learn things and in doing so, shook herself from the trappings of her solitary and almost obsolete life (and employment).
The Transcriptionist is a novel that finds its energy in the forgotten and unknowable. It is not the glamour of New York City that entices the reader, but the monotony of a single person’s everyday life and the subsequent search to find comfort and meaning. Lena finds her solutions in language. She is able to finally see other people’s failings in their use of language and reactions to it. We have our memories, but when we, too, are gone, it is language that is left to carry us away from being forgotten.
This novel will be released in the US on May 13, 2014 by Algonquin Books.
*Although, completely different NYC stories, part of me had a similar indulgent feeling when I read The Rules of Civility.