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Amy Rowland’s ‘The Transcriptionist’ is an impressive debut novel

Amy Rowland, it seems clear, knows what she’s writing about. Her first novel – which is funny, sad, perceptive and soulful – is set mostly at a storied New York City newspaper, cleverly called The Record, as in “the newspaper of record.”

The protagonist, Lena, is a transcriptionist, a sort of dictation clerk who listens to the disembodied and tape-recorded voices of reporters calling in their stories from around the city and the globe, and who types them into the newspaper’s computer system. Rowland did that job herself for years at the New York Times, where she is now an editor on the Book Review. It is a job that, like so much of old-style newspaper work, barely exists any more, and this fading of tradition is very much a part of the tale being told.

Her characters will seem familiar to those who know the relatively recent history of the Times. There is a rogue reporter, who is an unholy blend of Judith Miller and Jason Blair; there is a revered former publisher and his son, the current publisher, complete with odd nicknames (not Punch and Pinch here, but Popcorn and Kernel); and a bombastic editor who, like the deposed Howell Raines, likes to wear straw boater hats and invoke Bear Bryant in overblown speeches to the newsroom staff.

But amusing as this all is, it’s not the novel’s real value, nor does it reflect its overall mood. That lies in the dark and sometimes surrealistic rendering of Lena’s inner life. And it lies, too, in her spiritual journey from a young woman held captive by the endlessly spooling language inside her head to one who is set free – by strange events, and stranger people, and her own growth – to find and face her future.

Although much of the material is gloomy – Lena is largely isolated, alone amid the teeming city – Rowland’s sense of the bizarre creates unexpected comic moments, as in Lena’s reflections on her dismal room in a boarding house for women.

“There is something painful about living in a room with a sink, although it is difficult to say what it is. The gray-green carpet underneath sometimes gets damp and it feels awful underfoot. Or maybe it is that lying in bed, she can see the sink’s naked udder, leading to exposed pipes. But she cannot consider a sink skirt either. That would be worse. Hardware should not wear costumes. Of that, at least, she is certain.”

Even for those who are not particularly interested in the role of newspapers as the glue that holds a society together (the author observes that Chaucer’s tales and Scripture once did the same) will find much to appreciate here.

Rowland’s writing is spare but evocative, whether she is describing the panhandlers in Times Square or the shabby Recording Room where she spends her solitary days.

Here, for example, is her portrait of the self-impressed Record reporter, Katheryn Keel, who is holding forth among lesser journalistic lights about her experience embedded with the U.S. Marines in Baghdad: “She is wearing a black silk jumpsuit and, on her huge flat feet, kitten-heel mules, which cause her to sway ever so slightly; overall, she gives the impression of a highly focused, structurally sophisticated, and quite expensive effort, like a skyscraper reinforced against the wind effect.”

The plot itself – Lena’s obsession with a blind woman who has committed suicide at the Bronx Zoo by throwing herself to the lions – seems almost incidental. It mostly serves as the vessel, a perfectly good one, for what is really going on here: Rowland’s exploration of profound subjects and her consistently engaging writing.

Margaret Sullivan is the former editor of The Buffalo News and the current public editor of the New York Times.

The Transcriptionist

Amy Rowland

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

246 pages, $24.95