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'The Transcriptionist' Is Immersed in Words

For Lena Respass, the last transcriptionist working at New York's daily newspaper, The Record, a brief bus ride beside a blind woman changes everything.

The Transcriptionist

Publisher: Algonquin
Length: 256 pages
Author: Amy Rowland
Price: $24.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-01

To find Lena Respass, transcriptionist for New York newspaper The Record, ride the elevator to the building’s 11th floor. Venture down a dim hallway to a dingily painted door. Take care with the door handle; it’s easily broken.

Lena is a dying breed, her profession increasingly obsolete. She works alone, most often from taped stories, though the occasional live telephone call comes through. Either way, Lena dutifully transcribes the story, then dispatches it to the correct editor.

An uncanny memory for words and phrases makes Lena a skilled transcriptionist. At the office, her concentration divides between the work at hand and a collection of memorized passages that she silently recites to herself. Lately this habit has become a problem, as stray sentences sometimes crop up in articles. Lena must take great care to prevent her recitations from appearing in final pieces.

After calling in a "goodnight", after securing permission from the editors to leave for the day, Lena usually walks back to her room at the Salvation Army Parkside Residence for Women. Increasingly unable to shake her workday, with its barrage of words, Lena’s nights are plagued with recurring nightmares. At dawn: "She awakens in the morning with someone else’s words, someone else’s thoughts, ribboning around her brain."

Amy Rowland was herself a transcriptionist for The New York Times, where she is now an editor in the books review section. Though I can find no evidence that Rowland is a migraineur, only a fellow sufferer could so aptly describe the headache afflicting Lena the day she rides the bus home. She takes a seat beside a blind woman, leading to a brief yet intense conversation. The woman, who Lena later learns is named Arlene Lebow, holds a brail copy of Ray Bradbury’s The Veldt.

Realizing Lena is in distress, Arlene takes her hand, squeezing the flesh between thumb and first finger. Though this acupressure trick sometimes alleviates migraines, it doesn’t help Lena. Arlene then makes an odd remark: "I’m looking inside your cage," she says, adding that she sees words in there. Lena explains she is a transcriptionist. Arlene is a court reporter. Somehow she intuits Lena’s workplace difficulties. People like them are overly sensitive to other people’s words, she says. Lena must stop absorbing so much. "Be careful what you listen to," Arlene warns.

Lena is protesting when her bus stop cuts the conversation short. Three days later, she is given a disturbing story to transcribe. A blind woman has committed suicide by breaking into the Bronx Zoo, where she climbed into the lion’s den, and died by mauling. Nobody at The Record is much interested in this bizarre story, even after Arlene Lebow is identified and her body goes missing. Nobody but Lena Respass.

Arlene Lebow’s death cracks Lena’s self-imposed isolation. Why would an otherwise sane woman break into a zoo and swim the safely moat to a shoreline of waiting lions? Lena is determined to find out.

Along the way, Rowland makes some lacerating observations about the state of newspaper journalism and those producing it. While it's tempting to try matching The Transcriptionist’s more outrageous reporters with real people, readers are better off enjoying Rowland’s blistering portraits of wedding columnist Maggie Bradley, who mistakes Lena for a machine, war correspondent Katheryn Keel, who rhapsodizes about being embedded with Marines in the Middle East, and newt-like assistant editor Boris Hackney, who demands "Let’s see some high, high metabolism!" of his rambunctiously adolescent newsroom.

The journey from the 1th floor to the truth about Arlene’s death requires playing fast and loose with news credentials and, at times, the narrative. Rowland is a gifted writer whose memorably lovely sentences ensure that the novel’s more idiosyncratic moments work. And idiosyncratic moments there are: at times Lena’s behavior borders on irrational. She takes to leaving late-night voice messages for Arlene on the Records Room voicemail. A stop at Arlene’s now-empty apartment violates journalistic ethics, the law, and perhaps reality, while visits to Arlene’s sister Ellen are well-intentioned, yet shrouded in dishonesty.

More realistic moments include a visit to an animal sanctuary, where Robert the lion sits silently unresponsive in his cage. He has ceased eating since Arlene’s death, prompting his keepers to move him from the zoo. Lena’s visit is fruitless; even as she gazes into Robert’s eyes, the gap between human and animal proves unbridgeable. A ferry trip to Hart Island is more productive. Here, New York City’s unclaimed and unidentified dead are buried. Lena finds herself amid a group of convicts on burial duty. The men inter the anonymous deceased with touching respect and decency.

Lena comes to realize she shares surprising commonalities with Arlene. Both work in the province of difficult words. Both are migraineurs, though Arlene’s headaches are "cured" by the meningitis which blinds her. Both women are haunted by the stories each is responsible for recording; in Arlene’s case, family court’s wrenching scenes are her undoing. And both are haunted by lions. Yet this doesn’t quite explain the unusual manner of Arlene’s death, or her decision to die.

The Transcriptionist brims with feline imagery (and, strangely, the reviewer wrote with her cat in her lap). Within hours, Arlene’s unusual manner of suicide will involve large cats. During Lena’s adolescence, a large cat ranged the countryside. Lena watched the adults around her accuse the animal of all manner of wrongdoing, even as they struggled to identify it. Mountain lion, puma, thought to be extinct Eastern cougar? After neighbors kill the animal, the cat lingers in her consciousness, a source of daylight fascination and night terrors.

Arlene’s nature will never be fully understood. Her piercing ability to sense Lena’s innermost soul in a few moments cannot be explained. Nor can it be dismissed: it can only be accepted as a necessary catalyst. As all loners know, solitude holds a dangerous appeal.

Lena realizes she cannot return to the 11th floor, hidden down that dim hallway, where other people’s stories flow from her fingers. Her childhood, with its snake-handling father and passive mother, must be accepted. Lena’s disappointment in University must also be faced. Expecting English Literature to be a shrine to words, Lena instead finds herself appalled by literary theory and the linguistic acrobatics employed therein. Having run from the Church and the Ivory Tower, Lena found one of the last houses of words: the daily newspaper. But The Record, emphasizing readership at the expense of truth, is yet another grave disappointment.

This time, Lena does not flee. Nor does she withdraw. Some might find her actions horrifying. Others will cheer. But no reader will be left unmoved when the transcriptionist, that oft-overlooked human machine, responsible for other people’s words, finally unleashes a few of her own.


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