Quarantine Reads: The U.S.A. Trilogy


Quarantine Reads

Our flat in London has five windows and two skylights. Like most renters in this city, we have no yard, no balcony, no fire escape. Four floors up from the street, the windows offer our allotment of open space; the sky forms our personal outdoors. Over the past weeks, since our early self-quarantine bled into the UK’s nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, I have studied the way patches of light move through this flat like I’m a geographer of warmth. I follow it in arches as the hours pass, as though I’m a dot floating across a time-lapse heat map. Cooped up in a few hundred square feet, I have learned that my sanity depends on putting myself in that path of light, again and again and again.

It begins in our bedroom, which faces southeast: early in the morning, a rectangle of light hits the wall at the foot of our bed, bisected by the windowpane’s even cross. At midday the skylight creates a square foot of heat in the hallway; the dog and I sit there, sharing it. By early afternoon the sun has moved to the other side of the flat; a corner of the dining table is flooded with light, illuminating every pock and scratch in the wood. If I sit there until evening, the sun leaves my cheeks pink.

I’m light-chasing in my mind, too: trying to hop from one safe, warm spot of focus (the potted mint thriving in the window; the thin-sliced meat dry-curing in the oven; the dog nuzzled against my side) to the next (an untouched tray of watercolor paints; a fresh set of mismatched sheets on the bed; a bath at midday). The shadows of dread spread beneath my conscious thoughts. I look away as long-laid plans crack and rot. Fear has become ambient, the way you stop hearing the speeding train’s rattle when you live next door to the tracks.

Like all those who have built lives in a country that is not their own, where one’s right to exist is granted only in brief, expensive, and uncertain installments, I found myself caught between risks: the risk of staying in London and the risk of returning to America, the risk of distance and the risk of infection, the risk of being within and the risk of being without. Time made the decision for me.

There go the shadows! Gosh are they dark. I leap back into the silly, easy light: the neighbor’s blossoming jasmine, the dog’s wet nose, the warm breeze at night. There is birdsong in the neighborhood, was that there before? If I fill my mind with only this, I may get through. I know it’s a privilege to even try.

Books, I’ve tried, too. I page through new books and old books and books I’ve read before, desperate to be swallowed up. But it’s as though my brain’s been rewired: linear plots appear naive and presumptive; realist dialogue rings flat like a bad pilot script; and depictions of normalcy shoot my thoughts down a rabbit hole of when-will-it-be-that-way-again. I try and fail to lose myself, but then the book gets set down, and I somehow wind up on eBay, channeling homesickness into bids for Chicago kitsch.

I was aimlessly watching the ticker go down on an auction for Cubs paraphernalia when I saw the fat spine of John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy staring me down from the shelf. I’d read the books years ago, as an undergraduate in California, a time in my life characterized by so much ease and beauty that I find it hard to believe it actually happened. Back then I’d admired the rhythm of his sentences and the ambition of his project, but had found myself listless in the face of his determined experimentation: the novels, The 42nd Parallel (1930), Nineteen Nineteen (1932), and Big Money (1936), shuttle between snapshot narratives of various fictional American men and women; brief biographies of famous men; snippets of poetry and popular music from the radio; stream-of-consciousness autofiction; and headlines and sentence-length clippings from the Chicago Tribune and the New York World News. It’s a clattering 1,184-page portrait of a nation in perpetual crisis, reckoning with war, precarity, economic upheaval, cavernous political divisions, capitalism’s parasitic expansion, and the thwarted rise of American social democracy. To say that it’s a trilogy of “renewed relevance” would be to suggest the story of America has ever been otherwise.

Its massive size, which once filled me with a sense of studious obligation, now grants me freedom to roam. I read diligently for a few pages; I page ahead, flip back. I read like I’m improvising the act of reading. I stare at the headlines: “EMPLOYER MUST PROVE WORKER IS ESSENTIAL”, “THIS IS THE CENTURY WHERE BRAINS AND BILLIONS ARE TO RULE”, “STRIKING WAITERS ASK AID OF WOMEN”, “CONFESSED ANARCHISTS ON BENDED KNEES KISS U.S. FLAG”. My mind flits across the tales of Janey and Mac and Eleanor and Richard; I glimpse the lives of journalists and mechanics and actresses and activists. Dos Passos’s Modernism mimics the pattern of attention we’ve developed on the internet: headlines declaring personal or national disaster are interspersed with enjoyably vapid snaps of popular culture and the tales of individual lives. It’s impossible to linger on any given moment; it’s gone as it begins. I read Dos Passos before I go to sleep, I read Dos Passos when I wake up, I read Dos Passos while I follow the sun. I absorb maybe a third of what I read; the other two thirds just keep me company, run-on sentences filling my mind, keeping other thoughts out.

In truth, what is portrayed is a glimpse of what’s likely to come: wholesale unemployment, the vicious reassertion of capitalist power, rare moments of mercy spread far across a long line of economic devastation. Yet these snapshots of two cities I love—Chicago, New York—bring me comfort at a moment when I have no idea when I’ll see them next. The characters’ vagabond lives throw my own stasis into clear relief: their lives are uncertain, premised on promises the market never intended to keep, but there is an irrepressible momentum to each story, months and years passing in pages, characters ricocheting across the country in search of some kind of progress, rarely finding it but pushing forward all the same, each motivated by their own private fiction of America.

I’ve never really known an America like that, except through the stories my immigrant grandmother told me: the way, as a child, she would watch planes pass over the Philippines and imagine that every single one of them was headed to the States. Her single-minded certainty that one day she’d put herself on one of those planes; her dogged belief that when she got to America, her life would really begin. I’m now the third generation to learn that to call two countries home is to live in a perpetual state of flight: you have always just left, you have always only just arrived.

That immigrant restlessness is borne out in the expansiveness of Dos Passos’s project, his insistence that meaning would be found not in one person’s life but in a whole wave of voices, a ceaseless coming and going. The U.S.A. trilogy offers the comforting cacophony of the collective at a time of isolation. I know America will be changed when I next return (when will that be?) and I envy those who have the luxury of taking it for granted, who sigh that they wish they were in Europe, that they wish they were anywhere else. I understand where it comes from, but all I can think of is home. So I read Dos Passos and I let the days pass and the news cycles keep cycling through, rendering home for me in statistics and headlines and photographs of empty streets.

Dos Passos ends his trilogy with an unnamed young man on a plane headed west, looking out at the sky over the country as the plane passes through dusk: Cleveland, Chicago, Cheyenne, Salt Lake.

The transcontinental passenger thinks contracts, profits, vacationtrips, mighty continent between Atlantic and Pacific, power, wires humming dollars, cities jammed, hills empty, the indiantrail leading into the wagonroad, the macadamed pike, the concrete skyway; trains, planes: history the billiondollar speedup…

A hundred miles down the road.

In a corner of our apartment where the light never hits, we have a photograph by Berenice Abbott, one of Dos Passos’s Modernist contemporaries. The image depicts Exchange Place in Lower Manhattan, after the Wall Street Crash. Abbott’s vantage point is surreal, as though she’s on a tightrope between two skyscrapers, looking down on the street. Men in professional dress walk the streets, unidentifiable; a few look up, most keep their heads down. New Street and Broad Street form stripes of sunlight between the shadows of the skyscrapers. And at the end of the road, there’s a slight curve, where Exchange becomes Hanover, and a building at the edge of Abbott’s sight fades into the polluted, dusty light, like the part of a dream where your mind hasn’t thought far enough, a corner your subconscious didn’t get a chance to build. Of course, for those on the ground, the disappearing point isn’t there at all: just more road ahead, more shadows, more light to chase.

Head swims, belly tightens, wants crawl over his skin like ants: went to school, books said opportunity, ads promised speed, own your home, shine bigger than your neighbor … paychecks were for hands willing to work … waits with swimming head, needs knot the belly, idle hands numb, beside the speeding traffic.

A hundred miles down the road.


Jennifer Schaffer is an American writer living in London. Her essays and criticism have appeared in The Baffler, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, and elsewhere in print and online.