Austin Books Eastside

step away from the arbitrary line breaks

This morning I went back to Cafe Mundi — probably my last visit for a while, since I won’t be living on the east side when I come back to Austin in August — and had a waffle and finished John Dos Passos’s The 42nd Parallel, the first book in his U.S.A. trilogy. It’s the first failed modernist novel I’ve ever read.

I’ve mostly read canonized modernist novels, by Joyce and Woolf and etc., which use fragmentation and stream-of-consciousness narration and image-laden prose to excellent effect. Dos Passos tries to employ those techniques, and occasionally manages a great phrase or a haunting juxtaposition of words, but on the whole it just doesn’t work. The 42nd Parallel has four main streams of narration — three fragmentary and lyrical and one more straightforward and chronological prose — and the straightforward prose sequences, which make up perhaps 2/3 of the book, are by far the most successful and gain little from the fragmentary bits of newsreel lyric, biography, and autobiography jammed in around them. The novel as a whole doesn’t fail, or doesn’t fail entirely; the narrative sections are gripping at times, and consistently interesting, and I’m intrigued enough to pick up the next two volumes of the trilogy when I have a chance. But I think it would’ve been a better book without the self-consciously experimental sections, where Dos Passos attempts to use a particular set of trendy techniques — and does fail, despite his talent as a writer.

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