DELIA TRAMONTINA Reviews
Manhatten by Sarah Rosenthal
(Spuyten Duvil Press, 2009)
Memory and Storytelling: A review of Sarah Rosenthal’s Manhatten
Sarah Rosenthal’s Manhatten recounts a woman’s relationship with the borough of Manhattan, filtered through the lens of her interactions with lovers, friends, and family members. In this collection of prose chapters sporadically punctuated by short poems, the narrator tells her story—mostly in the past tense, but sometimes shifts into present tense as if propelled forward in time by the power of her own narrative.
While reading this book, the reader is struck by Rosenthal’s use of memory in her storytelling. Indeed, the way in which the “I” recounts her history says much about how we all tell stories; we protect ourselves from shame, forget the useless or perhaps painful, and focus on what is meaningful at any given moment. It is because of these authenticities of storytelling that one forgets this is a work of fiction. The reader assumes he or she is privy to a private conversation where the character reveals her history, with all the omissions, corrections and hindsight human beings possess when they venture to expose themselves.
The play of accuracy and memory is evident in the title, which is an exercise in misstep. Rosenthal spells “Manhattan” with an e. And since this ordinary spelling mistake might easily be overlooked by the reader, she italicizes it, highlighting the accident. It is like she is saying to the reader, “Let me be clear, my narrator makes common mistakes.” These might be mistakes in relationship, in memory, or in spelling. Rosenthal’s narrator is fallible and she is honest enough to tell us up front.
Manhatten reminds us that remembering and forgetting often go hand in hand. Rosenthal’s “I” refuses to be her own expert, admitting to the reader that she forgets, or perhaps did not have the details straight to begin with. “He told me about volunteering on a hotline for people in some kind of trouble” (7). The missing content creates the atmosphere of humanness. “One of them was the girlfriend of his brother, something like that”(19). We can only assume that the “I” does not choose to fill in or make up details she does not have or remember. But perhaps the “I” is fabricating most, if not the story. The reader does not know if, also on page 19, the opening act at a club that the narrator visits was actually “Night of the Living Dead spliced with Fantasia” or if this is just something she made up for lack of accurate memory. We assume the details, as well as the gaps, are “authentic” to this narrator’s story. This “forgetting” of (possibly) superfluous information creates a trust in the “I.” We feel that she is telling from a place of genuineness; she will not give us false information for the sake of completion. At the same time, we know of her imperfection. We know this story is being told through the filter of human remembering, which is colored by the teller. If Rosenthal’s “I” told a seamless story with no hint of forgetting, yes, we might trust her more. But that trust might be ill-advised, as it always is when we believe the entirety of someone’s narrative.
The reader has no doubt that this story is being TOLD, not merely revealed to the reader by the omniscient “I.” When we tell our stories, we do not start at the beginning, including all the salient details in chronological order, but instead discover those details in relevance to what we want our listener to know. Rosenthal tells a story this way, by forgoing linearity to recreate the way we tell others about ourselves. The narrator of Manhatten at times backtracks: “Down the steps to bump into a former fellow grad student. We’d spent the night at her apartment in San Francisco at the end of grad school, with a guy I’d slept with who was trying to hit on her best friend, watching ‘The Life of Brian’” (106). Sometimes she flashes forward: “He and his wife Charlotte. I know them a lot better now” (9). She tells memories within memories: “On a trip to Manhatten in May 2001, I lay on my friend Rachel’s turquoise couch, freezing. In two more days I’d have a ferocious head cold. I was too cold and far away from myself to get up and change into the warm pants I had in my bag” (12). She tells and retells anecdotes: “Late that night, in the kitchen, Susan’s mother Charlotte was internal. Paranoid from lack of sleep I said, Is it me. Was I mean to the guests. No sweetheart she said kindly, shocked, taking my face between her two hands the way she does” (14); “When I got back to the Golds’ Max was getting ready for bed, Carrie was sleeping, Charlotte was moving solitary in her kitchen. Putting things away, thinking. I said, ‘Was I too bossy with the photos?’ ‘Too bossy? You? Of course not, dear,’ she said, smiling, taking my face in her warm hands and pressing her head into my neck the way she does” (16). The narrator’s return to these items reveal their importance but also show that the story was not told in entirety the first time, and probably isn’t told completely now. The chapters themselves create whole jumps back and forth in time. There is no discernable pattern to how the chapters are laid out, except to assume that the “I” is remembering her story in this order. Memories are like that; triggering each other and creating paths in personal narratives.
Throughout Manhatten the reader is very aware of focus. The narrator zeros in on certain details, which act as descriptors for the “I”, showing what catches her attention. “He’d keep nodding at whatever I was saying and reach for a tiny piece of paper and scribble and stick it in his pocket and pick up exactly where I’d been” (56). “Laurie and Matthew both selected peach-ginger; I took spearmint” (70). These items help the reader envision the story but also reveal the narrator as someone who remembers these details. In theory, these particulars of focus could be greater in number; Manhatten could be a much longer piece of work. But instead Rosenthal keeps these moments at a minimum, letting them illustrate the focus of the “I.” Again, uneven focus and fluctuating levels of attention are indications of human bias in storytelling.
However, when one looks at the 15 scattered poetic pieces that punctuate the book, we see Rosenthal demonstrate a different level of authority. Instead of a narrator whose accuracy must be questioned, we see a more omniscient speaker. It is clear that the narrator of the poems has a wiser vantage point and understands the consequences of action and relation: “saw too-skinny/ too-many-patterns. I shouldn’t have / tracked the toddler’s path/ so pointedly” (24). The “I” speaks to outcome and certainty; she makes statements: “buildings will weep for lost siblings/ kohl-circled eyes will stare above dusty cheeks/ the river water will resemble river water/ but only under a certain sun/ a softened body will learn to tell time” (55). Later, on page 85, “you will be asked to run a number of tests/ your signature will be illegible/you will not be in the helping profession. . .” Not only does this narrator know what the “you” will do, but she has also calculated the errors. And unlike the imprecision in the rest of the book, the language here lets us have full confidence that this narrator is quite accurate. Other times the idea of consequence is introduced without clear depiction of outcome: “Had the murder blighted/ my kin (cowering/ victim), had/ we rolled/ to sea level (horse/ and wagon),/ had we sweated/ under layers/ (mercury collects),/ had the past/ been swallowed (throat/ lump),/ silence with pinholes (prickle)/ solo (oboe)” (68). In this entire poem, we do not hear the results of these actions that were presumably not taken. Yet the poems’ narrator knows these actions could have landed the “I” in the prose sections in better standing.
Manhatten is, more than anything else, a story about story. The narrator knows she is constructing her narrative: “I recounted all of the above to Rachel, lying sideways on her couch” (32). “My progress to date, consists of having arrived at the statement ‘Someone’s got to lose and from now on it’s not going to be me.’ I’m trying to move beyond that” (33). Of course we relish in the details of this woman’s life and recognize ourselves in her insecurities and adventures. But we also recognize how we talk, how we relate to others and how we present our own personal narratives. It is rare to see a written work so perfectly depict the way memory functions. Rosenthal has created a narrator who reminds us we are never as accurate as we might hope, but the real story lies somewhere between our accessible details.
Delia Tramontina is from Queens NY and received her MFA in Writing and Poetics from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in 2001. She now resides in San Francisco. Her poetry has appeared in Ur Vox, Bombay Gin, Tinfish and Spore. She is currently working on a manuscript of poetry.