Well-Tailored Piecework Stitches Up a 1911 Tragedy

070306 article book shapiro Well Tailored Piecework  Stitches Up a 1911 TragedyKatharine Weber puts her stories together like piecework, like the work done by the two sisters in Triangle, one a survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire of 1911, the other killed by it (along with 145 others). Ms. Weber stitches together an interview, an article, a conventional third-person narrative the way one sister added the left sleeve, the other the right, to finish a dress. Ms. Weber’s figurative sleeves at first appear to be made of fabrics that don’t match—burlap and chiffon—but they get set at last into a garment whose shape is ultimately pleasing, and visible only by inference, which is also pleasing.

Following a beautiful and moving epigraph by Robert Pinsky (a poem about the Triangle fire, the exploitation of early mill workers and the shirt he’s putting on), the novel starts with an account by the surviving sister, one Esther Auerbach Gottesfeld. Her story is presented as an article that appeared in a 1961 Ladies Garment Workers booklet, which may really exist. (Ms. Weber’s own grandmother was a button finisher at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co.) The description of young women struggling to get out of the firetrap building—suffocating, turned to human torches or jumping to certain death—is wrenching. That’s the burlap.

The next stage of piecework, much longer, will inevitably feel trivial after such trauma, a big flounce of chiffon. It’s about a contemporary composer of whom the following claims are made: “Genius flowed from George Botkin”; his music is “unlike any music, unlike anything anyone had ever made on earth before”; and “Everyone recognized that George Botkin’s music was overwhelmingly beautiful.” Not only this, but his piece “Parturition” seems to induce labor, “Echinacea Serenade” is used in “holistic healing centers,” and a composition based on lymphosarcoma polypeptide patterns causes headaches and bad temper. Not only have you left the visceral and real, you’re in a fantasyland where Ted Turner casually commissions a piece for a million dollars, talking like Popeye: “I loves me some violins.”

It emerges that we’re hearing about nice, equable George because he’s the boyfriend of Rebecca, granddaughter of Esther Gottesfeld, who is, at this point (in September of 2001), 106 years old and in a Greenwich Village nursing home. Poor Esther is being repeatedly interviewed by a scholar named Ruth Zion, who doubts her story: Ruth wants to know why only Esther and her boss escaped from the fire through a door that otherwise remained locked. We hear Esther’s immigrant’s tale of leaving Belarus with her sister Pauline, being cheated and being helped, outwitting danger and enjoying the freedom of earning money, however grudgingly paid.

Esther also reveals that she was pregnant by her fiancé, Sam, whose name she took, though Sam died with his arms around non-fiancée Pauline, jumping out a window on the ninth floor, where the fire escapes had collapsed and the exit door opened inward, sealed by the crowd pressed against it. From Esther’s angry and evasive answers, you soon deduce that Esther must really be Pauline and that there was something between her and the boss who unlocked the door.

A mystery story has emerged, a story of mistaken identity, secret payoffs, connivance and greed—or maybe of rape and reparations.

Then Esther, last witness to the fire, lets go of the life she’s hung onto with such tenacity. The mystery is left to be more or less solved, and the right sleeve joined, by the opening of a safe-deposit box that Rebecca inherits and through some more indirect narrative: an article about George, in which it’s revealed that he wrote a piece based on his and Rebecca’s DNA patterns that “will never be performed publicly”; and a report on the performance of another one of George’s compositions.

That composition is called the Triangle Oratorio. Most improbably for a post-tonal, quasi-aleatory composer, it’s program music; even less probably, it’s programmed with such explicitness that it can fill in the last gaps of the story. Thus is the froufrou of fantasy joined to the burlap of historicist naturalism.

Esther’s story is finally a version of An American Tragedy, in which Esther has the part Shelley Winters played in the movie but gets to look like Elizabeth Taylor (and, along with her baby, live). Her voice is gratifyingly familiar, a crabby, Yiddish-inflected vernacular that’s precious because it’s vanishing, barely to be found anymore outside of Flatbush.

As for the book’s pretenses on behalf of music, that’s probably a matter of taste. My ability to suspend disbelief was pulled past its limit almost immediately. Ms. Weber also means to force a parallel between her narrative method and music, which I also find as strained as the language of the epigraph she uses to highlight it: “the listener has no way of apperceiving the music as a whole other than by recreating it in his own imagination.” I suffered through language like that during the years I lived with a composer, also a Yale graduate student in music, just like the young George Botkin. It’s just a fancy way of saying that the reader (unlike a listener, if you think about it) fills in a story’s missing parts.

Some of the parts, in this case, are not as fine as others, but they’re arranged by a skilled literary gameswoman, and they play to the involuntarily amoral capacity of every reader to have fun fitting them together.

Anna Shapiro is the author of Living on Air (Soho), published last month, as well as two other novels and an essay collection.