For years Lena Respass has worked solo in her tiny office — a gray hovel shut off from the rest of the newspaper — transcribing stories that reporters for The Record (perhaps the New York Times?) call in. With headset and Dictaphone, she is a human conduit, processing words, typing them, storing them, rarely listening to their content — that is, until she transcribes news of a woman who has committed suicide by climbing into the lion’s den at the local zoo. Curiously captivated by the woman’s anonymity, Lena gathers her journalistic skills (atrophying as they are in the transcription room) and sets off to put a face on the latest quiet death in the loud city of New York.
Lena’s affinity with the woman, Arlene Lebow, is uncanny: Like Lena, Arlene is intelligent, well-read, quotes literature. As a court reporter she, like Lena, channels sad stories. That she is blind mirrors Lena’s frustration with the imageless words that swirl in her head. Both women live alone; both have few friends, and, to further suggest their existential kinship, they met once, briefly, on a bus.
As Lena labors to uncover Arlene’s story, her own dissatisfactions surface: There is a failed office romance; a reporter goes missing while covering the Taliban; an esteemed foreign correspondent fudges datelines and acquiesces to Pentagon censorship; reporters are issued escape hoods to protect themselves from chemical attack; a biker’s near death in Midtown traffic is largely ignored. Amid this barrage, Lena — along with a like-minded elder statesman holed up in the newspaper’s archive room — strives to stay sane, grounded and appropriately mindful of the faces behind the news.
It seems a losing battle though, for, as Lena puts it, “the news cycle now has no recovery time, we are bombarded with so much news that it has lost its meaning and people look for signposts that they touch like rosaries to order their world, repetition without affect.” And yet Lena proceeds, a likable narrator, a 33-year-old single woman taking on the big machine with wit and charm. (How can you not love a former lit major who quotes George Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins?)
This is Rowland’s first novel, and according to the back cover, purportedly “asks probing questions about journalism and ethics, about the decline of the newspaper and the failure of language” — none of which I found to be particularly true. But it is a lively tale, light and enjoyable, about a sensitive, reflective and articulate soul in a fast-paced, often soulless world.
Christine Brunkhorst is a book critic in Minneapolis.