With 1919, the second volume of his U.S.A. trilogy, John Dos Passos continues his "vigorous and sweeping panorama of twentieth-century America" (Forum), lauded on publication of the first volume not only for its scope but also for its groundbreaking style. Again, employing a host of experimental devices that would inspire a whole new generation of writers to follow, Dos Passos captures the many textures, flavors, and background noises of modern life with a cinematic touch and unparalleled nerve. 1919 opens to find America and the world at war, and Dos Passos's characters, many of whom we met in the first volume, are thrown into the snarl. We follow the daughter of a Chicago minister, a wide-eyed Texas girl, a young poet, and a radical Jew, and we glimpse Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Unknown Soldier.
It's almost as if USA is specifically structured to get under my skin, making use of the modernist experimentalism I'm such a sucker for in other works, and using it to express a uniquely American perspective. Dos Passos's trilogy features many different types of narratives: third-person stories about regular American men and women, told in a succinct, newspaper-influenced voice; long, prose-like poems about the larger-than-life Americans of the time, from Rockefeller and Eugene Debs in the early years to Isadora Duncan and Henry Ford in the later; snippets of newspaper headlines and popular songs cobbled together into looser, "newsreel" poems; and the Camera Eye sections, told in a stream-of-consciousness style, from Dos Passos's own perspective. Together this variety of the large and small, journalistic objectivity and intensely subjective snapshots, regular people and giants of art and industry, lets me relate to America-as-vast-experiential-panorama, in a way I usually can't. And the way that the ridiculousness of newspaper headlines and semi-articulateness of a poignant song lyric interact with the complicated and compromised lives of real people rings true almost a century later.
USA also offers a leftist slice of history in a way that's very personal: witnessing a brutal anti-labor attack in rural Washington state in the 1910's, or the ins and outs of a strike in Goldfield, Nevada in 1905, really makes the history of those familiar places come alive for me, and become part of the larger patterns of pro- and anti-labor movements happening all over the country. (Unfortunately, the activists who undermine themselves through in-fighting and excessive drinking are eerily familiar as well.) There is a Kerouac-like love of the small towns and big cities of America, but Dos Passos writes about people who are actually invested in them one way or another, rather than people who are just passing through - an approach I find much more emotionally rewarding. For me personally, writing about the wide spectrum of American experience using a wide spectrum of (American) voices is very powerful, and I've never really seen it done as effectively as Dos Passos does it here. If there are any other lovers of experimental prose out there trying to connect with their American roots (or not), I highly recommend USA.
1919 has zero plot. This is by design, but that does not endear it any more to me. The book is told in various sections: headlines/jingles, stories about regular depressing Americans, autobiographical segments (called Camera Eye) and biographies of famous Americans. Although that mixture of elements sounded really intriguing to me, it came of ass just a confusing jumble, something that I suspect may have been worse in audio format, especially with the headlines.
None of the segments interested me at all, except for some of the stories of regular folk, although those tended not to keep me enthralled either. The problem was that every one of them will destroy themselves with bad decisions, as you discover in the forward by E. L. Doctorow. So, basically, even if I did like someone, it was inevitable that I would come to hate them because they would act like an idiot. Argh!
I will give the narrator his props, because I think he did a pretty good job with this confusing mess of a book. He happily sang the songs in the headline bits and did a pretty good job differentiating the sections. I think he did mispronounce some of the Italian though.
This definitely was not a book for me. In theory, it sounded interesting, but the execution of the different sections and the pointlessness of the main people's stories just wore me down. Maybe it would have been better had I read the first book.