Monday, December 16, 2013

The Transcriptionist by Amy Rowland

Spoiler-free summary:Lena works for the Record, a renowned newspaper in New York City. She is not a reporter, however, but a transcriptionist - a scribe for the reporters.  Lena endlessly types the recorded messages left for her on her Dictaphone, allowing the world's news to pass through her fingertips and onto her computer screen. It may sound like an interesting position, but Lena is losing herself in the sea of quotes she must untangle on a daily basis. She has become a conduit for others - a silent, obedient link in a twisted, corporate chain. One day, a story comes through the lines that Lena just can't shake: A woman, who Lena recalls meeting on the bus only a few days before, has been mauled to death by lions at the zoo. This strange news story changes Lena's world as she becomes aware that, despite all of the quotes and articles drifting around her head, she has her own voice.


The Transcriptionist, Amy Rowland's debut novel, is an interesting read. Quietly subversive, the book urges us to question our roles in the workplace and the ethics of  journalism. What does it mean to publish the truth? The prose ranges from lyrical to short and blunt, which, surprisingly was not distracting in the least. The language mimics the turmoil in our protagonist Lena's head. This novel is surreal and beautiful, but also short and frantic. There is a strange anxiety that emanates from the story, which, I think, is born from the urgency that surrounds journalism. There is not much action in this novel, but there are a lot of unbridled emotions.

Though this was a work of fiction, I found it very informative. Like many characters in the novel, I didn't even know that people still did this sort of work. I also enjoyed the look at the cutthroat world of journalism.

At times, the characters and scenarios were too saccharine or too perfectly demented to be real. For example, Lena's life mirrors Arlene's (and their names are the same...) I know this was necessary for Lena's development and Lena is completely aware of the resemblance, but, it drew me out of the story a bit. I approached The Transcriptionist more as an allegory or a modern day Aesop's fable rife with metaphor than a straight-forward novel.

The back of the novel  notes that Amy Rowland worked for the New York Times as a transcriptionist for over a decade. This was the icing on the literary cake for me. This novel became a thousand times more sad, more sincere, more biting, when I realized that Rowland's life and Lena's were probably not that different. I am very glad that, like Lena, Amy Rowland found her own voice amidst the headlines.

Buy The Transcriptionist May 13, 2014 from Algonquin Books in hardcover or audiobook format.

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