Book Report 009: John Dos Passos, MANHATTAN TRANSFER

Houghton Mifflin · 1925

Hell it's been a very long time, to quote Rod Stewart at his most sentimental. I haven't read a classic of modernism for pleasure in I don't know how long. Ten years? Fifteen? I've become accustomed to saying that my three favorite Great Books (as distinct from my three favorite books period*) are Howards End, The Great Gatsby and Brideshead Revisited, but I haven't reread any of them in at least a decade, and today I'm a very different person from the snobbish, Jesuitical young man who first made that list. For one thing, I've lived a little; and where much of Manhattan Transfer would have been totally opaque to me at the age I decided what my favorite books were, I read it with such complete joy that even though it took me the better part of a week I wanted to stop reading it much more often than I did just so I could savor it longer.

(Is this true to anyone else's experience? The compulsion I mean to pause a great movie or set down a great book and just walk around for a while in the glow of its spell, putting off reaching the end not because you want it to go on forever but because if you plow on you'll miss totally capturing the exultation of the moment? It's why I don't read well in cars; not because I get nauseous, but because I glance out the window and let whatever I was reading transform the landscape, live in the pleasure of the ideas for so long that I forget to return to the text.)

Manhattan Transfer may not be a great book — I'm no judge, I haven't read enough Great Books to say with any authority — but it's a very good book. I mean that in multiple ways. It's good in the sense of being moral — of having a cleareyed, sympathetic but scrupulous vision of humanity, letting no frailty or inconsistency escape its attention but not judging in the least — and it's good in the sense of being extremely well constructed — a work of impressive craftsmanship on every level from sentence to plotting — and it's good in the sense of being an endless font of needle-fine enjoyment. I laughed with sheer delight at Dos Passos' sentences and images and constructions more than I ever remember doing with a book before.

The genre of the book is worth some attention. Casting about for an image of the cover to steal off the web, I came across a short review that dismissed it as a failed attempt at high modernism á là Joyce and Woolf, bereft of the psychological insight that characterized those masters and devolving into sentimental bildungsroman at the end. Which is fair up to a point — except Dos Passos never really attempts psychological insight. His technique, like all the great American modernists (Faulkner perhaps excepted) is cinematic, concerned with the surfaces and poses of American life, and has anyone ever detailed those surfaces more magnificently? His New York (ca. 1895-1925) is so vividly imagined, so concretely sensuous, that I was caught short several times, blinking with surprise at the fact that an eighty-five-year-old novel was able to so minutely describe my own sensory experiences.

There is a sense in which the book is a social novel in the vein of Tarkington or Wharton, with an overlay of playful linguistic pirouetting (thus the inevitable comparisons to Joyce) and a wider scope than the essentially middle-class Tarkington or upper-class Wharton. The book has a tremendous (and very American) energy, and part of that energy is provided by the great galumphing engine of melodrama: convenient fires break out, hearts are tragically sundered, men try to kill and be killed, massive fortunes are lost, and heartstring-tugging children are menaced and left alone. But I can't think of this as a flaw — I like Tarkington and Wharton, and I prefer to read books in which things happen rather then the reverse. And Dos Passos orchestrates these events not naturalistically, but imagistically: the melodrama is not meant to be taken seriously (this is in addition to everything else a very funny book), but to say something important about the shallowness and triteness of American lives: if his characters are supposed to be average people, melodrama is the appropriate lens. (Have you ever met an ordinary person?) But Dos Passos is no Sinclair Lewis: he isn't condemning the American system so much as marveling at its vastness, its energy, and its callousness. It ends with one of the main characters lighting out for the territories like Huck Finn, and Twain (and Melville, and Whitman) are far more important comparisons than overbred, self-obsessed Europeans like Joyce and Woolf.

With all that, I was surprised several times at how modern the book was — not how modernist, but how twenty-first century. It could easily be read as a feminist text, with its evenhanded view on abortion — or a queer one, with its incandescent sympathy for a gay man trying and failing to live straight. If there were literary justice, Dos Passos would be widely recognized as fully the equal, maybe even the superior, of his friends Fitzgerald and Hemingway (the trouble is he lived too long and didn't off himself romantically), and I'm extremely glad I've read this book. I haven't even said half of the things I wanted to say about it yet; but anyway I think I have a new favorite Great Book.

*We'll get to them in time, I'm sure.

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