A blind woman’s suicide prompts a newspaper staffer to rethink journalism in particular—and the nature of existence in general.
Rowland’s debut novel centers on Lena, an employee at major New York daily the Record, where she transcribes interview tapes and takes reporting calls from foreign correspondents. It’s a dying job in a dying industry, and Rowland emphasizes the strangeness of the gig and Lena’s own isolation within it. (Conspicuous references to Beckett, O’Connor and Calvino bolster the out-of-the-mainstream mood.) A story about a woman who broke into the lions’ den at the Bronx Zoo and was promptly killed sparks Lena’s sorrow and curiosity (they had a brief encounter), and the novel turns on her effort to learn more about the woman’s life than simple journalism will deliver. Rowland deliberately presents the profession in a fun-house mirror: Staffers are given emergency “escape hoods” instead of bonuses thanks to post-9/11 anxiety; an aging staffer spends days musing over the obituary archives; and the publisher’s pronouncements are pompous even by CEO standards. In stuffing this milieu with bits of mystery, romance and aphoristic riffs on listening and silence, Rowland has taken on a bit too much; the novel’s tone unsteadily shifts from the bluntly realistic to the fuzzily philosophical. Even so, individual scenes and characters are very well-turned: Lena’s visit to a potter’s field where the mauled woman is buried, a conversation with the security guard at the lions’ den, the preening investigative reporter who makes a major error about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Rowland has a talent for making the real world just a touch more Day-Glo and off center, but Lena’s own concerns about listening and being get short shrift in the process.
An appealing attempt to wed the weird and everyday in a newsroom setting—it’s a cousin to Renata Adler’s Speedboat (1976)—that never quite finds solid footing.