Saturday, August 08, 2020

E. L. Doctorow

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. 

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