Sunday, March 27, 2011

Doctorow offers his adept gift of insight

E.L. Doctorow would seem to be consumed with history. His best-known novel, "Ragtime," offers a pastiche of America at the turn of the 20th century, while "The March" (2005) re-imagines Sherman's march to the sea during the Civil War. But he has spent much of his career evoking outsiders who feel alienated from what is expected of them.

To wit: Daniel Lewin of 1971's "The Book Of Daniel," trying to make sense of his parents who, like the Rosenbergs, were executed as atomic spies; the narrator of his 1984 novella "Lives of the Poets," informing us that "dereliction is the state of mind given to middle-aged men alone, not to women"; Thomas Pemberton, the Episcopal priest whose spiritual crisis centers the 2000 novel "City of God." These men are adrift in the universe, unable to reconcile themselves to family, to mortality, to their own irresolvable desires.

In "All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories," many of the characters -- including Pemberton, who appears in the story "Heist" -- which was later adapted for "City of God" -- suffer from a similar emotional exhaustion, the sense of having been caught unexpectedly in the middle of their lives with no clear through-line between the present and the past. As for the future, it is something of a glaring blankness, less a promise than a burden to be endured.

"Some vast -- what to call it? -- indifference ... slowly creeps up on you with age ... becomes more insistent with age," a character explains in the lovely "Edgemont Drive," a story told entirely in dialogue, in which an elderly poet returns to the home in which he was raised to haunt (in the most literal sense imaginable) the family that lives there now. "It's a kind of wearing out, I suppose. As if life had become threadbare, with the light peeking through."

"Edgemont Drive" is one of six new stories in "All the Time in the World." Six others -- three apiece -- come from Doctorow's two previous collections, "Lives of the Poets" (the title comes from the novella) and 2003's "Sweet Land Stories." New, of course, may be a relative term, since "Heist" was published in 1997 and "Liner Notes: The Songs of Billy Bathgate" first appeared in New American Review in 1968. Rather than make the material seem recycled, however, this gives us a sense of breadth, of movement, of the scope of Doctorow's career.

Here we have the point of any new and selected volume, but in this instance, it's complicated because Doctorow has never published much short work. His stories, then, exist as analogues to his longer fiction, set pieces more than symphonies.

Doctorow touches on this in a brief preface, noting that whereas "(a) novel may begin in your mind as an evocative image, a bit of conversation, a piece of music, an incident you've read about in someone's life, a piece of music ... (a) story, by contrast, usually comes to you as a situation, with the characters and setting irrevocably attached to it."

What he's suggesting is that novels require a certain fluidity, while stories remain more fixed. This may be why, to me, "Heist," which was adapted for "City of God," and "Liner Notes" are the two least satisfying efforts: the former because it lacks the heft, the nuance, of the novel that grew out of it, and the latter for the opposite reason, because, in telling the story of a Bob Dylanesque singer-songwriter, it has nothing to do with the novel, "Billy Bathgate," that, more than 20 years later, Doctorow would go on to write.

And yet this too is in the nature of a new and selected, to operate as a bit of a grab bag, and in so doing to let us read the work anew. That's the case with the six older stories, which trace, with grace and acuity, the tension between longing and obligation, between who we are and who we mean to be.

In "Walter John Harmon," a middle-aged lawyer remains faithful to a religious cult even after his wife runs off with the leader of the sect. "What further proof did we need of the truth of his prophecy than his total immersion in sin and disgrace?" he asks of this erstwhile prophet, who has promised to purify his followers by taking their transgressions as his own.

With "A Writer in the Family," Doctorow turns the question of transgression inward, describing a Bronx teenager of the 1950s who writes letters from his dead father to his grandmother, to protect (or deceive) the older woman from knowing of her son's death.

Here, Doctorow explores the delicate dance of narrative, what it offers and what it can never offer, its ability to corrupt or to console. "I thought how stupid, and imperceptive, and self-centered I had been," the young letter writer admits, "never to have understood while he was alive what my father's dream for his life had been." Such a sense of disconnection reverberates through nearly every story in the book.

Perhaps nowhere is this more vividly expressed than in "Wakefield," the best of the new pieces.

Revolving around another middle-aged attorney who, after a fight with his wife, hides out for months in the attic above his garage, it is a parable of unintended consequences, of the way things can get away from us once we discover our "talent for dereliction."

"I had left not only my home; I had left the system," the narrator enthuses, as he lets his hair grow and, like a ghost, watches his family make a life that no longer has anything to do with him.

If this is the subtext of much of "All the Time in the World," here Doctorow makes it explicit and deeply moving, not because it is so odd but because it is so common, as if the scrim of civilization were just that: a veil, an illusion, a set of conventions that might dissipate at any moment, given the right kind of push.

No comments:

Post a Comment