The Typist is a compelling meditation on how public events shape private lives. Packing sharp characterization and a rollercoaster plot into a brisk 200 pages, it is also a notable feat of literary economy.
Michael Knight’s protagonist is Francis “Van” Vancleave. Serving out his Army duty in post-World War II Tokyo, he is called to a meeting with General Douglas MacArthur, who has gotten the idea that Van is the fastest typist in Japan. Soon Van is not only personal secretary to Mac-Arthur, but also weekend playmate for his son.
Even as Van adjusts happily to this odd role, trouble is on the horizon. His roommate, a member of MacArthur’s personal Honor Guard, threatens Van’s tranquility by conducting shady business deals; meanwhile, Van is befuddled by bad news from home. He quietly grapples with these problems as his Army tenure draws to a close.
The events and people Knight takes as his subjects are monumental, but The Typist does not portray them that way. Instead of a mythological General MacArthur, we see a humble homebody who reads the newspaper in his slippers. Even when there is a purportedly historic event—the “Atom Bowl” football game in Hiroshima—Van takes his leave to attend to private matters.
Van himself has a sort of blank quality—appropriate for someone whose job is to mindlessly transcribe the thoughts of others. Even though he has typed his own story, he shows little sign of grasping the importance of what goes on around him. Events are in the saddle, and—until the end, at least—Van is just there to report the ride.
Some might complain that The Typist takes liberties with history. Yet it is no small thing to convince a reader to suspend disbelief about well-known events; Knight does so masterfully. And though readers might find themselves wishing he had delved more deeply into these characters, The Typist’s brevity—in which it refuses to draw out any one plot point—is a source of its power.