Saturday, September 15, 2007


"With every deep breath Herf breathed in rumble and grind and painted phrases until he began to swell, felt himself stumbling big and vague, staggering like a pillar of smoke above the April streets, looking into the windows of machineshops, buttonfactories, tenementhouses, felt of the grime of bedlinen and the smooth whir of lathes, wrote cusswords on typewriters between the stenographer's fingers, mixed up the pricetags in departmentstores. Inside he fizzled like sodawater into sweet April syrups, strawberry, sarsaparilla, chocolate, cherry, vanilla dripping foam through the mild gasolineblue air. He dropped sickeningly fourtyfour stories, crashed. And suppose I bought a gun and killed Ellie, would I meet the demands of April sitting in the deathhouse writing a poem about my mother to be published in the Evening Graphic?

He shrank until he was of the smallness of dust, picking his way over crags and bowlders in the roaring gutter, climbing straws, skirting motoroil lakes."

So Manhattan Transfer is officially the best novel in the world. I was telling Greg yesterday that it's better than Gatsby, better than Hemmingway's best (well...maybe not the short stories...but definitely better than Sun). Might even give Faulkner a run for his money.

It came out in 1925 and certainly defines that era better than Gatsby or Hemmingway. It is the first novel I've read that is able to create the modern city while getting out from under the thumb of Ulysses. While some of the techniques are the same (the use of headlines, jumping between consciousness of characters), it comes off as being such a different novel. For one thing, it's more filmic than Joyce's writing. Apparently, Eisenstein was one of Dos Passos' influences, but what he does is not quite montage in the Eisensteinian sense. At the beginning of each chapter, he does have an extraneous paragraph describing a scene of city life, but it's not quite unconnected enough to be true montage. This is the beauty of the writing--it all works together in brushstrokes, almost to make this larger unseemly whole. Kinda like a Chuck Close painting. But it also manages to move forward, with a thumping plot-rises constantly.

The novel exists in constant motion that is never not exhilirating. There are about 150 characters, probably. But it works. It jumps from the announcement of New York as the "World's second metropolis" in the papers to a post WWI New York seamlessly. Dos Passos is responding to Dreiser and the realists/naturalists AND the avant-gardists and making this new breathing thing. And it's a pretty seedy novel as well. I haven't read an American novel that deals with prostitution or abortion so bluntly from this early in the 20th century.

The compound words work to visually create the motion and the grafting that the city he is describing is composed of. You know how people say that the city of a novel becomes a character? (which is so cliche, I HATE that saying...of course it's a character.) Anyway, Dos Passos is reimagining the idea of character in this novel. There are too many people in the novel for them to be characters, so how does one describe the actors in the book? Words and accents and style and jump cuts all get in the way, leaving character a very ambiguous idea.

Another interesting bit is that Dos Passos is SO ambitious in this novel...narrating every type of voice, from destitute immigrants to capitalists to architects and dancehall ladies to bootleggers. BUT, he stays clear away from Harlem and there are no black characters. There are Jewish, Italian, English, French characters with matching dialect. But there is no black dialect at all. Black characters exist amongst the melay, and get descriptions like this: "The elevatorman's face is round ebony with ivory inlay"--and that's the extent of it. The closest the novel gets to a black character is Congo Jake who looks black, but is really Italian. So for all this motion and movement, no Harlem nor Renaissance. Which is FASCINATING because Home to Harlem was such a big seller only a few years earlier as well as Van Vechten's novel. So Dos Passos had to be aware and had to have made a conscious decision to extract a certain type of black urbanity from the novel. A response to Pound and Eliot with this omission? A nod to James Weldon Johnson? i dunno.

Anyways, point being, if I teach 20th century American fiction, this book will definitely be on that list.