Katharine Weber's novel Triangle, the third of the Litblog Coop Summer 2007 nominees, opens with a fictional account of the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 from an 106-year-old survivor named Esther Gottesfeld:
This is what happened. I was working at my machine, with only a few minutes left before the end of the day, I remember so clearly I can still see it, that I had only two right sleeves remaining in my pile -- my sister Pauline, she did the left sleeves and I did the right sleeves and between us we could finish sometimes as many as twenty-four shirtwaists in an hour, three hundred shirtwaists on a good day, if the machines didn't break down, and if nobody put a needle through her finger, which happened all the time and the biggest problem then was you didn't want to bleed on the goods but you didn't want to stop work so you took a piece of scrap and you wrapped your finger tight and you kept working -- my sister was a little faster than I was and sometimes her finished pile would be high because she did her sleeve first and then I would taker from her pile to do the right sleeve but I have to say my seams were the ones always perfectly straight.
Esther Gottesfeld will eventually get to the part where the fire blasts through the crowded floors and kills over a hundred young women, but nobody talks exactly straight in this sly and multi-dimensional fable about New York City natives groping for elusive truths. After we meet Esther we meet her likable, sensible granddaughter Rebecca Gottesfeld and her oddly talented husband George Botkin, of whom we are told:
George's compositions in recent years were built around his invention of a simple amino-acid musical scale with which any DNA could be expressed musically.
There's also a comic foil (doesn't every novel need one?), an annoying academic feminist named Ruth Zion who is writing a book about the Triangle fire and approaches Rebecca with a theory that Esther Gottesfeld has been fabricating parts of her story. She pesters Rebecca for access to her grandmother's archives, completely oblivious to Rebecca's own feelings about the history in question:
"My little book, as you put it, is eight hundred and twelve manuscript pages, and that is without the footnotes, acknowledgements, dedication, epigraph or index. Clearly you are very upset by your loss. I misjudged the timing for my condolence call to you, for which I apologize. You are in an understandably sensitive mood. I can hear that."
"Calling up a stranger to tell her you think her beloved grandmother who has just died was some kind of liar, and now you're planning to stir the shit, is that your idea of a condolence call?"
"I will take that as a rhetorical question, just as I will overlook your unfortunate use of vulgar language, because I recognize that you are becoming very emotional, regrettably, owing to your grief. I am still planning on including you in my acknowledgements."
These characters intersect and collide, and while I don't want to give too much away I will say that this book, like Paul Auster's City of Glass, manages to create a heightened sense of identity dislocation that lingers long after the book is finished. It's also a bracing and funny read, alive with the accents and attitudes of post 9/11 New York City, and it also stands as a memory of an important phase in the history of the vast community of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to America. Katharine Weber's own grandmother worked at the Triangle factory, and in fact most New York Jews can trace their heritage back to the garment business of over a hundred years ago (my own paternal grandmother also worked in a garment factory, my paternal grandfather was a tailor, my maternal grandmother worked in a shoe factory, and my maternal grandmother sold clothes on Madison Avenue). But though this book begins as an ethnic tragicomedy of manners, it ends as something far more universal: a study of mankind's surprising ability to construct false truths on a monumental scale.
August 13-17 will be Triangle week here at the Litblog Co-op! We'll have podcasts, interviews, guest blogging and more. Please come by and join in on the discussion!