Reviewed by Mary Vensel White
Amy Rowland’s The Transcriptionist opens to a view of the Recording Room, within the offices of a fictional New York newspaper, the Record. It is a gray-colored, sparse room, long-forgotten by most employees and inhabited during work hours by Lena, the Record’s sole transcriptionist. She sits alone all day, headset attached, transcribing everything that’s been recorded for the paper. Like the room, most aren’t aware of her existence. Lena gave up an academic career studying literature to work at the newspaper; this move is the final withdrawal in a life spent withdrawing. She left her religious childhood for the comfort of books and now, she is a conduit for words while having nothing to say herself. She has become isolated and often quotes passages from novels or poems when she is forced to socialize.
I was immediately entranced with the setting of the newspaper’s offices and the city outside. The newsroom is bright and full of life while upstairs, musty, forgotten rooms hold the newspaper’s past. Rowland’s New York is a Daliesque canvas where past and present collide. People lounge in a park without realizing it used to be a cemetery; statues of forgotten heroes stand at every corner. Likewise, Lena exists in both worlds. Her mind remains with the Eliots and Becketts of her education, while the stories that come through her headset are unbelievable, a daily hodge-podge almost impossible to digest: suicide bombers, extravagant weddings, physicists who gather to celebrate the “theory of everything” which may also be a “theory of nothing.” It’s modern, global life, as diluted, condensed and reported by the Record’s journalists.
Lena’s monastic existence is disrupted when a story comes across the wires about a blind woman who’s been killed by zoo lions. When she remembers a chance encounter with the same woman prior to her death, Lena becomes determined to find out more about the circumstances of this apparent suicide.
The Transcriptionist has much to say about journalism, stories, and what constitutes the truth. Every communication, Rowland seems to be saying, is dependent upon the vehicle of exchange; every story is just one version of truth. I feel I could read this book again and again, ferreting out all of the hints and meanings Rowland has woven in. Every scene can be contemplated and examined—Lena’s emotionless encounters with a possible love interest, the violent childhood episode that haunts her, the electrical blackout that occurs in the city, causing a myriad of reactions.
Rowland’s publishers have compared the novel to Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love and while I see the resemblances between the main characters, both people dependent on recorded history, both preoccupied with reconciling a past story with their present emptiness, I thought a lot about Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore while reading this. Both novels get inside the mind of someone living by, for and through books; both maintain a sort of nostalgia for words and stories and both speak to current times and are satirically funny in ways I don’t remember Krauss’s book being (although I loved it). The Transcriptionist differs from Penumbra in the sense of futility it has about the current state of human discourse, as though all people are inevitable islands and words unable to build real bridges.
The Transcriptionist is a multi-faceted, timely story with moments of great tenderness and insight mixed with dark humor. Anyone who has spent a life in books, a life relying on words to get them through, will relate to Lena’s situation. It’s a modern parable about the dangers of imagination and the human need to record and relate. And it’s a story I’ll ponder for a good long while.
Mary Vensel White is an author and a contributing editor of LitChat. Read more about her and her books here.