Make no mistake about it, Triangle is a novel of ideas. It ranges over some substantial topics--genetics, classical music, families, and history, to name a few--and deals with a few specific issues: the living fibers we use to construct history; how we are currently constructing the history of 9/11/2001; the ways in which art can spring from nature; how humans make order from chaos, both historical and biological.
In Triangle Katherine Weber is thinking through some impressive ideas, but, unlike the authors of many philosophical novels, Weber doesn't forget that she is first and foremost creating a work of art. That is to say, in Triangle you will find the stuff lesser novels leave behind in their rush to SAY SOMETHING: close attention to language, deft plotting that converges meaningfully with the philosophical subtext, interesting, believable characters.
What is the book about? Esther Gottesfeld is a survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, March 25, 1911. When the novel begins she's telling her story for an oral history project 50 years hence. Her testimony will be repeated many times: as part of a 1911 trial to determine the culpability of the factory's owners for fire-related deaths, as part of the oral history project, and as a series of interviews for a professor's "postfeminist" academic work.
Esther is the mother of Rebecca, a New Yorker who has a life-long relationship with George Botkin, the most famous classical composer of his generation. (Botkin triangulates music from DNA and memories; he becomes famous when celebrities begin buying compositions of themselves.) The novel follows Rebecca and George, reconstructs Esther's life through her testimonies, and, at the end, nicely tacks on a plot to do with a "postfeminist scholar" out to "blow the lid off Triangle studies" by getting a hold of Esther's posthumous papers.
One thing I particularly like about Triangle is the way Esther's testimony subtly changes, in content and form, each time she gives it. For one thing her words reflect that in each instance she's dealing with different people who have different motives for eliciting her memory: to indict, or free, factory bosses; to provide as "true" an account as possible for posterity; to help a professor prove her thesis. Also there's the fact of Esther's English: as a relatively new immigrant in 1911 she's got a somewhat poor grip on English; in 1961 she's considerably better, and in 2001 she's a 106-year-old woman who doesn’t quite speak like she used to.
Each testimony reads convincingly like English as it is spoken, and the changes help illustrate part of Weber's idea on how history is constructed. When you want to construct the real story of the Triangle fire, which do you use? Esther in 1911, 1961, or 2001? (Perhaps the best thing to do is to triangulate.) The testimonies also bring across Esther as a person, as the naive factory girl who becomes the querulous old woman almost combating against her interlocutor.
The history of the fire (and, by implication, of the Twin Towers) is the main subject here, but Weber extends her triangulation theme into other realms as well. Botkin not only triangulates to construct musical versions of celebrities; he also creates an oratorio to commemorate the Triangle fire. In his condensation of the chaos of life to the order of art, Botkin shows yet another use that triangulation can be put to. He also raises an implicit question: What's the relationship between the order created by historians and the order created by artists? How does the postfeminist professor's paper on the Triangle disaster compare with Botkin's oratorio?
This isn't the end of triangles in this book. In constructing their lives, each character is sort of constructing their own triangle, making up a reality from the input they take in. Weber brings this across beautifully, with an assurance that, though meaningful, is never pedantic.
I read Triangle almost a year ago. It was one of my favorite reads of last year, and it has stuck with me ever since. I'm glad this book has received some attention from the LBC, and I encourage everyone reading this to give it a shot.
For more on this book, see my review, here.