Before September 11, 2001, the deadliest workplace disaster on U.S. soil was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which took place on March 25, 1911 and killed 146 workers. Katharine Weber’s excellent new novel, Triangle, is about both disasters, as well as (among other things) genetics, classical music, family, and history. What unites these threads is a desire to understand how humans try to pry out truth from uncertainty. Weber weaves it all into a gripping, playful story, ably told through documents, interviews, newspaper stories, and good old third person narration.
The book starts with a transcription of Esther Gottesfeld’s account of the Triangle fire. She was one of the few survivors from the 9th floor (which due to faulty phones took the bulk of the casualties), and she is telling the story 50 years later for an oral history project. This is a story that Esther repeats many times–like a symphonic theme, Esther’s narration is replayed throughout the novel: as testimony at the 1911 trial to determine the culpability of the factory’s owners for the deaths, as part of the oral history project, and as a series of interviews for a professor’s “postfeminist” academic work.
In reproducing Esther’s testimony, Weber shows a wonderful ear for English as it is spoken. Each time Esther speaks, Weber skillfully changes her language to reflect the effects of aging, and Esther’s increasing familiarity with English. Here’s Esther testifying in the 1911 trial. She had immigrated to the United States just two years before:
I had this idea about the other door–it was for the bosses only to use on the weekend, when the freight elevator, it wasn’t in use, these stairs were not for the girls, they told us, so it was a rule, and at the Triangle you got to follow all the rules of they get rid of you and there is always someone who wants to take your place–it was by the back side of the building, the Greene Street side, instead of the Washington Place side, they would go on these other stairs, they were by the freight elevators to walk up to the tenth floor, that’s where the offices were.
Esther’s narrations are the pivot around which the novel’s events turn, much as Esther is the pivot around which the novel’s characters turn. Take, for instance, Rebecca, Esther’s granddaughter. Esther is pregnant with Rebecca’s father on the day of the fire–perhaps if there were no fire the life of Rebecca’s father–and hence that of Rebecca–would have gone in an entirely different direction. Similarly, were it not for Esther’s contriving, Rebecca would have never met George Botkin, a world renowned composer who becomes her lifelong boyfriend. The two meet in Esther’s nursing home and fall in love.
Esther is more than a link between characters: she’s also a link between the disaster in 1911 and the disaster in 2001. She dies at 106 years of age, just days before 9/11, and for obvious reasons an AP wire story announcing Esther’s death as the last survivor of the Triangle fire comes two weeks late.
Although Weber never directly remarks on the fact that Esther falls days shy of living through both disasters, the link is clear. As lawyers, scholars, and even Rebecca try to uncover the truth about what exactly happened on the day of the Triangle fire, it dawns on a reader that in 2091 there will be oral histories and scholarly studies of what happened in the Twin Towers. It is an extremely graceful move by Weber, how she gently nudges us toward looking into the future of 9/11 by looking back to 1911.
This is where the titular triangles come in. Ruth Zion, the postfeminist professor (whose ostentatious sense of her own importance is beautifully mocked by Weber in a send-up of academia) is writing a book set to “blow the lid” off of Triangle studies. She’s made Esther the centerpiece of her study, and after Esther dies Rebecca gets sucked into her work. In order to understand what happened in 1911, Ruth triangulates: she collects information from primary sources, and then makes her best guess as to what actually happened.
So does George, our classical composer. He specializes in making music derived from DNA and other human biology. For example, his first major work, Protein Rhapsodies, was based on the pairs of nucleotides that form the various proteins used by cells in our body. He gains international acclaim when a string quartet he composes based on the contractions of women in labor is believed to induce labor (a couple past due women end up giving birth directly after performances of his piece).
When a close friend of his dies, George grieves by creating a “musical portrait” based on his friend’s DNA. The idea catches on: Ted Turner, in another hilarious send up (this time of the blatant commercialization of art), asks George to compose a portrait of him. This then sparks a rush of celebrities who want George to make portraits of them, quickly turning George into the most famous composer of his generation. Just like Ruth, George triangulates. He takes a person’s DNA, plus his knowledge of that person, plus his own musical instincts, and creates a composition that captures the feel of the person.
George has even greater triangular aspirations. He wants to compose a master work based on Sierpinski triangles. These triangles, Weber explains, are found in nature and are formed by playing the
“chaos game.” In this game, any three points are chosen on a plane. The points don’t have to be equidistant. Any point x may be chosen in the same plane, inside or outside the figure. With the roll of a die, a point is made halfway between x and the vertex indicated by the die. The process is repeated endlessly, each time from the most recent point. Although you might expect, after a while, to see a randomly dispersed field of points, what you see instead, inevitably, is a Sierpinski triangle.
George wants to make a composition based on the triangles, and, reading Triangle, it becomes clear that that is just what Weber herself has done. Each of the book’s characters make their own triangles, taking fixed points and trying to guess at the truth from them. Thanks to Weber’s careful plotting, as the book comes together so do each of the characters’ individual triangles. They link up and fit, and in the end all these small triangles form one big one.
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