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Manhattan Transfer – Andy finds himself back in Noo Yawk

September 22, 2013

I have never visited New York. And yet I have read so much fiction based there, and seen so much cinema and television based there that I feel like I sort of know it. I’m sure I don’t, and I’m sure when I get there, if I ever do, I’ll be disappointed and thrilled in equal measure.

manhattanManhattan Transfer is just the latest novel Netty and I have read based in the Big Apple. There’s also been The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, and Falling Man by Don De Lillo, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow. There are almost certainly others, these are just the ones I remember most vividly. Of all those, though, I’m not sure any make the city itself a character in the way John Dos Passos does.

Dos Passos was a contemporary and friend of two of the giants of 20th century American fiction, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. He is probably more closely associated with Fitzgerald because they both wrote about New York in their best known works, whereas the two of them are mostly associated with Hemingway because they spent great swathes of time in Paris getting colossally shitfaced, sometimes with James Joyce I think, whose Ulysses apparently influenced Dos Passos’s writing of Manhattan Transfer. It’s rather less impenetrable than Ulysses can sometimes feel;  about 15 years ago I gave Ulysses a crack, got two-thirds of the way through, thought “I might just take a short break…” and have never been back. I should probably have another crack. Manhattan Transfer, in contrast, doesn’t feel particularly challenging. Which isn’t to say it’s a dead easy read, but it’s certainly enjoyable and involving. And it doesn’t give you a headache.

Manhattan Transfer doesn’t really have a main character, although it has two characters whose stories it follows, more or less, from beginning to end.  It opens with the birth of Ellen – later Elaine, later still Helena. A little later we meet Jimmy Herf, returning to New York from Europe with his “Muddy”. While the novel is most obviously associated with the ’20s, these events actually take place in the early years of the 20th century. Manhattan Transfer was published in 1925, and its arc ends, I guess, about that time, with Jimmy in his late 20s. It takes in World War I and Prohibition – it’s actually quite wonderful to see how ineffectual Prohibition was, just quietly. Apart from Ellen/Elaine/Helena and Jimmy there are a host of other characters, most of whose storylines intersect with Ellen and Jimmy’s at some point, although there are a few who don’t. There isn’t really a “plot”, either, not in terms of something that overarches the novel from beginning to end – although you could perhaps argue that Jimmy’s perennial search for an alternative to New York’s persistent grind is a constant.

Dos Passos’s lack of interest in character, or at least his consideration of it as a matter of secondary importance, is philosophical and political in nature. Manhattan Transfer is not a celebration of New York (although it did nothing to dampen my desperation to visit). It is a critique of consumer capitalism, and Dos Passos uses the city as a metaphor for the way in which the system uses and destroys lives. A number of characters are dead by story’s end – at least one very early on, and quite shockingly.

Which all makes the book sound boring as shit. Which is unfortunate, because it’s not. it’s a fascinating exploration of technique and a thoroughly absorbing exploration of a city’s milieu, from gutter to skyscraper. It also surprised me in its relatively benign (perhaps “positive” would be too strong a word) presentation of same-sex attraction. There are gay characters, and at least one of them has therapy to try and turn straight, and funnily enough it doesn’t work. Dos Passos had the guts to write that in 1925. Fitzgerald did something similar, I seem to remember, in Tender is the Night.

Manhattan Transfer is not a book for everyone (Netty may have something to say about that). There have been occasions in the past where I have ended my posts with READ THIS BOOK. I won’t do that this time round. But I’m very happy to have read Manhattan Transfer, and I’d be curious – though not necessarily driven – to have a look at Dos Passos’s USA and District of Columbia trilogies in future.

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