Manhattan Transfer by John Los Passos – The Dawn of Chaos Theory

Manhattan Transfer is a novel by John Los Passos published in 1925 and much admired at the time by D.H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis. It describes life in New York, from the 1890s to the 1920s. This is not a single story, but an intermingling of dozens of narratives, seen from the point of view of a wide range of characters – wealthy college drop outs, lawyers on their way up, business men on their way down, tramps, actresses, journalists who have a vague idea to quit journalism and write a great novel. Some characters develop across the entire book, others only appear for a few lines. Point of view can shift from paragraph to paragraph.

Although this might sound potentially confusing and difficult to engage with, that was not my experience. The book worked as a whole, carrying me along so powerfully that I might as well have fallen into the swirling currents of the Hudson. I suppose this is because, amongst all the chopping and changing, there is a steady central character, and that is New York itself, portrayed in great descriptive passages. Some of the most vivid writing is reserved for New York at dawn, the beauty of early morning coinciding with many crises and turning points. The sunrise sums up the nature of the city, which has a machine-like relentlessness of operation, running on regardless of the people living there, which it often seems to use as fuel. And yet, whether dawn is bright and summery or cold and wintery, it always has an airy, ethereal, beauty, and is never the same twice.

Now, this next bit might not seem very literary, but I’m going to risk getting scientific for a moment. Bear with me. Recently I happened to be reading about this thing in Chaos Theory called ‘emergence’. Emergence is when a system changes according to the individual actions of its constituent parts adapting to circumstances without centralised goals, plans or coordination. These systems exhibit chaos and unpredictability in their development. However, despite their lack of plan, emergent systems tend to become efficient, complex and highly adapted over time. Examples of emergent systems include capitalist economies, societies, cultures, and, of course, cities – like New York. No one person or organisation set out to make New York as it now is, and yet here it is, a vast, almost mathematical grid of streets. Emergent systems are random and also highly ordered. I hesitate to stray into areas I don’t really know much about, with the associated risk of embarrassment; but I’m going to just put out there some interesting parallels between an account of the development of a modern city written in the 1920s, and aspects of a theory of complex systems devised by Edward Lorenz in the 1960s.

Whether Chaos Theory is relevant or not, there is a very modern feel to Manhattan Transfer, as remarked upon by the book’s eminent early admirers. It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking story, with some beautiful descriptive writing.

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