– Mariner Books 2003
Read from February 19th to March 16th 2014
How can be explained the complicated and fascinating relationship between the city and the narrator in all major Modernist works whose theme is urbanity? Think of James Joyce’s Dublin, dull and suffocating, with its Evelyns forever clued on the shore they dare not leave. Think of Henry Miller’s Paris, with its siren song that entangles the artists to better devour them. Think of Virginia Woolf’s London, collecting thoughts and fates in the glimpse of a park, the rush of a street, the passing of a tram. Think of John Dos Passos’s New York glowing with promises that it never keeps.
For every one of them and many others, the City is much more than a place, a conventional setting for the narrative, it is truly and fully a character, maybe the most important of all, for it determines the fate of the other characters, making them dependent, helpless, tragic. Furthermore, it has a second role, no less important: to embody History, merciless History that feeds on people and events to show that only the masks change, the stage and the plot remain the same. That there is no real progress, no real escape for the fly under the bell jar, only an incessant return to origins, a despondent circle motion where Dublin is forever full of minor epiphanies, London is haunted by suicide thoughts, Paris is incurably diseased and New York is a Hotel California:
The terrible thing about having New York go stale on you is that there's nowhere else. It's the top of the world. All we can do is go round and round in a squirrel cage.
However, where Henry Miller used the full stream of consciousness, Virginia Woolf combined it with free indirect speech and Joyce with interior monologue and objective speech, Dos Passos chooses the collage technique with a subtle care for symmetry and a flagrant indifference for timeline. The cinematic quality of his narrative was often pointed out, for it is made of apparently chaotically arranged snapshots and vignettes, with interchangeable or mirrored characters that create a collective hero even when they seem to focus on a single character. I often, during my lecture, felt like looking at a huge fresco swept by a restless spotlight whose conic light temporarily captures a destiny, then leaves it, takes another, to resume with the first choice at another point in time. Some characters, like Helen are spotted since birth, or, like Bud, for a shorter period, while others are only shadows without names, only a color, a smile, a dress that leaves however a lasting impression on mind even though they are not followed.
The narrative is thus full of red herrings that appear to contradict Chekov’s gun principle – until the reader realizes that this is the point, really, to show the unity in diversity, the tragic condition of humankind, be them rich or poor (Stan and Bud), successful or failures (James and Joe), educated or ignorant (Jimmy and Jake). Actors on a grim stage (all of them, not only Helen), their individual destiny may fleetingly interest some gossip column of a newspaper, but it is not important per se, a mere drop in the whirlpool of history:
Such afternoons the buses are crowded into line like elephants in a circusparade. Morningside Heights to Washington Square, Penn Station to Grant's Tomb. Parlorsnakes and flappers joggle hugging downtown uptown, hug joggling gray square after gray square, until they see the new moon giggling over Weehawken and feel the gusty wind of a dead Sunday blowing dust in their faces, dust of a typsy twilight.
Some read Manhattan Transfer as a fervent critique of the American capitalism, for it is known that, at the time of its creation, Doss Passos was a leftist. Maybe the novel can be interpreted like this also, but it is neither tendentious nor “engagé”. Capitalism is only another way of destruction of the humankind, together with war, time and personal emotions. Capitalism is only another face to be crashed under the foot of the inexorable history:
There was Babylon and Nineveh; they were built of brick. Athens was gold marble columns. Rome was held up on broad arches of rubble. In Constantinople the minarets flame like great candles round the Golden Horn… Steel, glass, tile, concrete will be the materials of the skyscraper. Crammed on the narrow island the millionwindowed buildings will just glittering, pyramid on pyramid like the white cloudhead above a thunderstorm.
Above suicides, lost loves, lost jobs, minor thefts and big larcenies, strikes, war, prohibition, the city blankly contemplates the struggle of generations, knowing so well that no one can truly leave. The last image of the novel, with Jimmy Herf, apparently free of love and society, keen to go “pretty far” is maybe the most tragic of all, for what is the river he travels down by ferry but Styx?