In which Netty, sadly, is not in a New York state of mind – this time, at least …

September 26, 2013


On paper, John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer and me should have been a match made in heaven. I have an overriding preference for 20th-century American fiction set in the US of A and written by American men. So I was really, really looking forward to sitting down and getting my teeth stuck into this big, sprawling tome.

So, um, what went wrong? Why aren’t I jumping up and down and raving about it?

I suppose I could put it down to the things going on in my life at the time – a recent move of abode, a particularly intense period at work; things that warrant, nay demand, one’s full attention. But surely that can only partly explain my reluctance to pick up this book and continue ploughing through it. When you opt to vacuum (one of my least favourite things to do) your space rather than sit down with a good book (one of my most favourite things to do), well, you know you’re in trouble. And it’s not like I really disliked it when I did force myself (more warning bells) to read it, either. It just seemed like it was all too easy to abandon it to other pursuits, even the vacuum cleaner (ahem).


It almost feels like I really should do due justice to Manhattan Transfer and reread it – especially the great swathes of it that I inadvertently found myself breezing through and over. And I really like the sound of Dos Passos’s the USA Trilogy – another book (well, three, obviously) that, on paper, is also right up my alley. I clearly just wasn’t in the right frame of mind for it – and I note that I have been unusually quiet on the book front in the past month or so, so maybe it wasn’t just Manhattan Transfer. Hell, I could have tackled a new book by, say, Bret Easton Ellis and had the same reaction. (Or not. No, definitely not.)


So what can I say about a book to which I have had an astoundingly, astonishingly indifferent reaction, when it is clearly a book that is well worth any reader’s time? Well, for starters, I could be glib and say don’t attempt it when you are in the middle of a move and/or a particularly intense period at work. It wasn’t a difficult read – and I was wary of the intimations that it was an “experimental” novel along the lines of James Joyce.

Andy is spot on when he says it is certainly not a character-driven novel; early 20th-century New York City (the book, Chicago native Dos Passos’ sixth, was first published in 1925) itself is the central axis around which its characters gather and pass through. Nor is it a love letter to the city; Dos Passos – an exceptional social chronicler here – casts an extremely critical eye over the city and its ability to chew people up, then spit them out. It has plenty to say – both directly and indirectly – on immigration, class, race and gender; topics – and the commentary about them – that are, disappointingly, just as relevant today, almost a century later. It is also ominously prescient about the stock market crash that hit at the end of the 1920s, ushering in the Great Depression.

I read somewhere in my wanderings that Dos Passos is a novelist who is widely considered important and influential but not so often actually read; that he has fallen off the literary radar when he should be right up with contemporaries such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Joyce (for the record, I haven’t read Ulysses either; I started it once, then put it down and never picked it up again. That was about 25 years ago.) This was Andy’s choice; I’d never heard of Dos Passos, or any of his work (and there’s plenty of it – he has more than 30 novels to his name, spanning a 50-year writing career). “Worthy” can be a double-edged sword of a compliment, especially about an author, but is is absolutely warranted in this case. And I, as a reader, was clearly as equally unworthy – on this occasion, at any rate.

So, sorry, John. Please accept my humble apologies. I really will endeavour to give Manhattan Transfer another shot some time in the future. Either that or I will pack myself off to a desert island – free of any and all distractions – with your USA Trilogy. You certainly deserve better than I was able to give you this time round …


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