This is a departure from the way I usually like to review books. It isn’t a review about the story (I’m not even sure how to begin on that one), nor the structure. Rather, it’s what studying Manhattan Transfer has taught me about writing a novel.
Manhattan Transfer was published in 1925, the same year as Great Gatsby. I thought I was going to be indulged in another extravagant, luxurious depiction of New York. The era is the same, but nothing else really is. It is a beguiling, tumbling narrative of a read.
My initial reactions
These comments are taken straight out of my MA process journal:
“This book really got under my skin.”
“It’s a dismal picture.”
“… but it’s not that it’s bleak – it’s too busy”
“A complex portrayal of American society in New York – is there any success or joy?”
“Is anyone really likeable – oh yes, Congo Jake”
I remember saying to my friend, and peer, Clare that I was relieved to have finished it. Yet, I was also absorbed by it. It had a page-turning quality, but I was unsettled in it. I am usually a sucker for a ‘hero’s journey’ in a story – where there is transformation of a protagonist. This is simply missing in Dos Passos’s book. It was only when I began to think more deeply about it, that I appreciated how clever this book is.
Manhattan Transfer under the knife
This book is like turning a kaleidoscope. This is at the heart of the disorientation, that feeling of being unsettled – the book getting under my skin. There is a constantly shifting narrative – the book doesn’t settle on any one character for very long. Like the child’s toy, you hold your eye up to the telescope and turn. The patterns change. The picture changes. This is Dos Passos’s craft in Manhattan Transfer. The people in the book move in and out of the picture. There is one character that runs throughout the whole story, but even she changes her name. One of the other key characters only comes in part-way through.
The main character, perhaps, is New York. Manhattan Transfer is the story about the city. There is no character more important than New York. The characters move in and out of the city, but it is the city that is constant. There is no plot, per se. There is no story arc, no character arcs. It is simply a story about in the city. As a way of illustrating this, the First World War takes place during the book. Another novel would follow the narration its characters affected by war (and two key characters do go off to war). Not Dos Passos, war is simply a section break. They leave the city, and come back to the city. The ‘action’ never leaves New York.
The structure of Manhattan Transfer, feels anarchic. Yet the contents page shows a very traditional three-act structure. It just doesn’t feel like it is, because of this montage construct. The book doesn’t really build towards a climax and then fall away. It is a constantly shifting pace. But like the child’s toy, the kaleidoscope only works because there is a cleverly constructed toy – it doesn’t just happen. There is structure in it. There is a lovely symmetry – the beginning mirrors the end – providing a kind of closure and an arc too. The book opens with a ship arriving in New York, and it ends with a character walking out of the city.
Dos Passos does have rhythm in his work. At times a syncopated beat, but every chapter has the same form. It begins with an almost poetic opening, before progressing to prose. The chapters are in themes, threads running through them. Some threads run throughout the book; these are the broad themes – like corruption and reversal of fortune.
Reading Manhattan Transfer is rather like being in a jazz club. This mixed up, unsettling, chaotic and rich experience. This book hasn’t just been thrown together. Like any good jazz musician, it takes skill to seem quite so unruly. This is as true of Dos Passos’s craft – it takes skill and care to make something so seemingly chaotic run so smoothly. It is absolute genius.