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Manhattan
Transfer

by John Dos Passos
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By Ted Gioia

John Dos Passos’s 1925 novel
Manhattan Transfer is perhaps best
remembered nowadays as a trial run for this same author's
U.S.A.
Trilogy, a massive 1,200-page work that would take up most of Dos
Passos’s attention over the next decade.  Most of the quirky ingredients
that characterize
Manhattan Transfer—the fragmented narratives, the
bits of newspaper stories and song lyrics inserted into the text, the
hedonistic and alienated characters, the occasional adoption of stream-
of-consciousness techniques—reappear on a more ambitious scale in
the later work.  

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Yet Manhattan Transfer was much more than a blueprint for U.S.A.  It
also established a new style of slice-and-dice fiction that continues to
flourish in the current day. To a greater or lesser
extent, a host of later important novels adopt a
similar structure.  We see it in works as diverse
as Don DeLillo's
Underworld, Doris Lessing's
The Golden Notebook, George Perec's Life A
User’s Manual
, John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar
and Fritz Leiber's The Wanderer.  Each of these
offers a literary collage, a holistic picture con-
structed from the juxtaposition of isolated pieces
of narrative. Upon its publication, Sinclair Lewis
seemed to anticipate this development, praising
Manhattan Transfer as "a novel of the very first
importance" and predicting that it could represent
"the foundation of a whole new school of novel-
writing."

In preparing to write
Manhattan Transfer, Dos Passos jotted down an
odd assortment of notes on scraps of paper: ideas for scenes, bits of
dialogue, facts, slogans, a textual collage waiting to be assembled into
something larger.  The finished novel retains this fragmented quality, an
Ikea of fiction where the reader needs to take charge of the final
assembly. The effect could also be described as cinematic, and just
as film allowed rapid shifts from scene to scene that made the
dramatic theater of the 19th century seem static by comparison, Dos
Passos offered a literary equivalent, a book in which characters and
settings flash by in a blur, and different stories are juxtaposed in rapid
succession.

But another influence is evident in this book, one far older than the
movie technology that was emerging as a major entertainment industry
during the period this book was written.  In his spare time, when not
working on his manuscript, Dos Passos read the Bible, a work that both
delighted and infuriated him.  "This is not a book to put in the hands of
Christians," he concluded.  But, in a strange sort of way, his own work-
in-progress began to take on a Biblical tone.  Characters come and go,
with their worries great and small, but a all-powerful deity presides over
their travails—namely Manhattan itself, poised to bless the few, curse
the many, and receive the worship and blasphemy of its chosen people.  

Dos Passos makes many unconventional choices in crafting this novel.  
He undermines the heroic, downplays the dramatic, and tempers the
tragic with absurd or fatalistic elements.  If other books portray bold
protagonists who seize their own destiny,
Manhattan Transfer offers up
characters whose fates seem random or perverse.  One of the most
successful inhabitants of Dos Passos's Manhattan is Congo Jake who
starts out as a peglegged sailor and ends up as a wealthy New Yorker
with a new name, Armand Duval, an attractive wife and more money
than he knows what to do with.  On the other extreme, we encounter
Joe Harland, the Wizard of Wall Street, who makes a killing in the stock
market and loses it all, but attributes his change of luck to the loss of a
crocheted blue silk necktie that his mother had given him when he was a
youngster.  (Shades of Rosebud!) Harland’s conviction is ridiculous, but
very much in keeping with the ethos of
Manhattan Transfer, in which  the
wheel of fortune is more like a runaway rollercoaster, taking people on a
wild ride beyond their ability to control or forecast.  

Dos Passos is equally iconoclastic in his approach to the moments of
intense action in this novel.  These invariably happen out of sight or at
a distance, presented with a deliberate attempt to suppress any sense
of suspense or excitement.  The most heated encounter in
Manhattan
Transfer
finds Congo and several other characters involved in a gun
battle between bootleggers and a rival gang that wants to hijack their
illegal shipment of champagne.  Yet Dos Passos decides to describe
the entire scene from the perspective of a bystander who is hiding in a
nearby building, and only catches a few glimpses of the action from a
window.   In another subplot, a down-and-out couple decide to stage a
series of holdups, and though Dos Passos describes the before and
after of their crime spree, he presents only indirect accounts of the actual
incidents.  The effect is peculiar and undermines the intensity of the story
—imagine if Tarantino had edited
Pulp Fiction, removing scenes of
conflicts, hold-ups, or violence, yet still wanted to convey the same
tension and ambiance, and you will have some idea of the impact here
—but very much in keeping with the approach of this novel. When
another one of his 'lost generation' characters commits suicide, and
sets his apartment on fire in the process, Dos Passos cuts away from
the action at the crucial moment, and continues the narrative from afar.  
Again and again, Dos Passos downplays precisely those tumultuous
incidents that most other storytellers would bring to the forefront. This
reticence—an almost ascetic renunciation of high drama---would
remain our author's
modus operandi.   A few years later he would write
a war novel,
1919—the second volume of the U.S.A. Trilogy set in
Europe during World War I—and not include a single firsthand account
of combat.   In the world of John Dos Passos, exciting and violent things
are constantly happening, but always in the background.   

But even as we admire
Manhattan Transfer for its ambition, readers can
hardly overlook the flaws in its execution.   Dos Passos shifts his scenes
from character to character faster than he can invent worthy plots to keep
them busy.  An interlude featuring an aimless character without direction
may reinforce the 'lost generation' ambiance of the book, but after fifty or
a hundred of these passages, the device loses it impact, and ennui sets
in.  In the closing pages of this book, when one of the characters gripes
"why don’t you do something instead of talk," the reader is inclined to
nod in impatient agreement.  Dos Passos also overuses certain
descriptive techniques.  
He seems incapable of writing about a setting
without referring to the reflections of light—this verbal tic shows up every
few pages in his novel.  Another example: When people walk down the
street in
Manhattan Transfer, our author again and again describes grit
blowing against their faces.  Was New York’s air quality really so much
worse back in 1925?  Even if that were the case, the repetition here is
awkward. Every so often, Dos Passos breaks out of these tired
repetitions and delivers a burst of prose that shows his capability as
an author.  But these are few and far between.  I suspect that most
readers, having finished this novel, will remember the innovative
structure, but not any turn of phrase or striking incident.  The characters
themselves seem determined to lead as forgettable lives as possible.

In all fairness, the structural innovation here is substantial, and will be
sufficient to keep this book in print, and impart some luster to its
author's posthumous reputation.  And given the increasing popularity of
fragmented narratives on the current literary scene,
Manhattan Transfer
has certainly lived up to Sinclair Lewis’s bold prophecy that it would
initiate a "whole new school of novel-writing." That said, it is a shame
that John Dos Passos didn't make a better case for this innovative
structure as a vehicle for delivering an equally compelling story.  
Selected Essays by Ted Gioia
available on the Internet

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Ted Gioia is the author of eight books. His most recent is The Jazz Standards:
A Guide to the Repertoire
, published by Oxford University Press.