Joanna Scott’s new novel, “Careers for Women,” is simultaneously a murder mystery, a good-humored feminist parable and a cautionary tale of ecological devastation.
“Careers for Women”
by Joanna Scott
Little, Brown, 295 pp., $26
To say that Joanna Scott’s new novel, “Careers for Women,” takes a behind-the-scenes look at the planning, building and promotion of the World Trade Center in New York doesn’t quite do it justice.
It’s a stylish jigsaw puzzle of a book, coming at its subject matter from multiple points of view and expanding the very notion of what historical fiction can be. Ranging in tone from faux documentary to jaunty “Mad Men”-like melodrama/psychodrama, it’s simultaneously a murder mystery, a good-humored feminist parable and a cautionary tale of ecological devastation.
It’s also deliciously aware of its own narrative antics — a book assembled, as one of its characters notes, “in accordance with the force of association rather than in obedience to the order of time.”
Scott (“The Manikin,” “Various Antidotes”) at first appears to be telling two quite different stories. One opens in 1958 and is seen through the eyes of 21-year-old Maggie Gleason, who has just started working for Mrs. Lee K. Jaffe (“Mrs. J”), the real-life director of public relations for the Port of New York Authority, the organization that built the twin towers. The second story concerns corruption and cover-up at Alumacore, an aluminum manufacturer on the St. Lawrence River.
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Mrs. J has an Auntie Mame brio to her. “My dears,” she declares in the book’s opening line, “it goes without saying that there are advantages to being a woman.” She’s proud of her accomplishments and she knows what makes the PR business tick, advising her young female charges to “say what your company needs you to say in the style that the public wants to hear it.”
“Lee Jaffe had such power over me,” Maggie confesses, “that a word of praise from her kept me glowing all day, and her disappointment broke my heart.”
Maggie isn’t the only young woman under the spell of Mrs. J.
Pauline Moreau, a teen prostitute who “refuses to think of herself as vulnerable,” is sent a rescue line by Mrs. J in the form of a job offer. Feisty Pauline, we gradually learn, is the link to the tale unfolding on the banks of the St. Lawrence.
Just as Lee Jaffe is drawn from the historical records, so is Alumacore. Its history — especially in its legal war with the Mohawk Nation, whose lands have been devastated by the manufacturer’s air pollution and waste-disposal practices — closely parallels that of Reynolds Metals Co. which, in the 1960s, supplied much of the World Trade Center’s building material.
The cast of characters at Alumacore includes managing director Bob Whittaker (who’s embezzling the company), Kay, his wife (copiously consuming “valium and vodka plus Virginia Slims” to combat her loneliness), and Kay’s rebellious, environmentally minded son from her first marriage.
Scott, in short, cheekily titled chapters (“Meet the Whittakers,” “Unplayable Lie”), skips back and forth in time, touching down in lower Manhattan, Albany and upstate New York. Dramatic action alternates with essayistic asides. (“Take the time to notice it, and you’ll see aluminum everywhere.”)
Foreshadowing of the twin towers’ doom comes in ironic form, as Mrs. J authoritatively refutes the notion that the towers would be “unsafe in an explosion or if hit by an airplane” (as one real-estate magnate, again drawn from the archives, worries).
Taking a sly excursion into the recent past, Scott delivers a twisting tale that, as it ends, “invites you to go back to the beginning and read again, with new attention.”