Top positive review
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Hard going but worth reading
on 2 April 2009
Now we are post credit-crunch this is probably a very good time to read this unusual American novel. At times it was hard to believe that Manhattan Transfer is describing the New York of 80+ years ago, so contemporary did it sometimes feel to me. The blurb on the back implies it is a novel about early 20's N.Y., but this is rather inaccurate. My grasp of history is not good enough to be precise, but the story certainly spans a period of over twenty years, and only reaches the twenties in the third of the three sections into which it is divided.
The prose style is idiosyncratic to say the least: the author loves creating German-style compound words, and frequently employs very individual spelling and punctuation. Some people might want to employ the dread phrase "prose poem" to describe it. The novel flits from character to character every few pages, sometimes even more often, with many appearing only once (so that very often I found it necessary to rifle through the earlier pages to try to confirm whether a character had appeared previously, and to see what had happened to him or her before)
This novel will probably tax the patience of many readers, but though I found it difficult to read more than 10 or 20 pages in one sitting, I was determined to finish it. I enjoy meeting people in pubs, even if I never see them again, and so I felt very comfortable with this book, because much of it is set in bars or restaurants, and characters are presented very vividly whether or not they will reappear later, and with something of the same intensity that one drink too many sometimes brings about. Although the city of New York always dominates over the humans I found the characterisation very satisfying.
Dos Passos was more or less contemporary with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Manhattan Transfer is, like the Great Gatsby, a book about New York and the American Dream. I far preferred Manhattan Transfer - I don't "get" Gatsby, and it is a mystery to me why it is so highly thought of. Though Manhattan Transfer occasionally drags, and though I sometimes wished for the kind of notes present in "real" Penguin Classics, I am very glad to have been introduced to this book. If you know nothing more about it try the "Look Inside" facility, as this gives a good impression of what you are in for if you decide to read this fascinating novel.