Let me say at the start that, in addition to Ragtime, my only other exposure to the work of E. L. Doctorow was City of God, a frustrating novel in search of mystical consequence.
I carried that frustration with me as I approached Ragtime, but these are two very different books. First, Ragtime is accessible, it is transparent: the prose are clean and confident. And second, Ragtime is not a book which veers toward the metaphysical. In fact, it is the opposite: assembled here are stories comprised of characters and action. There's a democratic quality to their openness.
Of the novel's central stories, one, I think, is particularly effective: this involves the injury done to an African-American musician, and his subsequent attempts to seek justice. In many ways, I wish that Doctorow had focused more on this story: because the others -- involving fictionalized version of Houdini and J. P. Morgan, for instance -- appear almost silly in comparison. Don't get me wrong: Doctorow is cunning, and funny, but these secondary stories lack the weight of that primary narrative around Coalhouse Walker, and his rightful quest for retribution.
Ultimately, Ragtime struck me as a disjointed attempt to present -- to enmesh -- an era. There are stories here of immigrants, of entrepreneurs, and of housewives. All of the elements of that Ragtime era are there. But to enfold them -- to truly encapsulate the time -- would have required a novel double the length, or one specific story with far greater depth.
As I say, I think there's one story, at least, that could have done that. But Doctorow, in the end, seemed more committed to weaving disparate narratives together than to building a singular novel with that lasting quality -- that permanence -- which defines great literature.