Books

Rethinking the Big Apple

E. L. Doctorow presents New York as a microcosm of a fragmented world

John Bemrose April 17 2000
Books

Rethinking the Big Apple

E. L. Doctorow presents New York as a microcosm of a fragmented world

John Bemrose April 17 2000

Rethinking the Big Apple

Books

E. L. Doctorow presents New York as a microcosm of a fragmented world

John Bemrose

E. L. Doctorow is carefully constructing his answer to a reporters question.

The 69-year-old author chooses his words deliberately—a craftsman searching for just the right tool.

Sitting in his downtown Toronto hotel room, he exudes an air of studied calm and control, as if he could induce the language to produce exactly the effect he wants. Yet as the author of novels including Ragtime (1975) and Billy Bathgate ( 1989) reveals how he came to write his 1 Oth and latest,

City of God (Random House, 272 pages, $38), he gives a glimpse of another, less masterful Edgar Lawrence Doctorow—the one who sits alone with his word processor, struggling not just to write something, but to figure

out what it is he’s writing. “I never start a book with some grand plan in mind,” he says in his soft New York accent. “It’s more like a private mental excitement—an image or an idea—and it can take me some time to figure out where it’s heading.”

in the case of City of God, Doctorow found himself writing an account of the origins of the universe. Based on the big bang theory, the passage eloquently described the mysterious expansion of all space and matter from a tiny point—and the dizzying inability of the human mind to grasp the phenomenon. Remembers Doctorow: “I wrote that page or so of material in the first person—and then began to wonder who this person, this ‘I’ was. He had a very good grasp of language, a real

flair, and it occurred to me that perhaps he was a professional writer.”

Doctorow chuckles as he says this, well aware he is playing with delicate ironies: the person he is describing sounds an awful lot like himself. Yet he insists the narrator of his book, a New York City screenwriter called Everett— for so he turned out to be—is not E. L.

Doctorow. “I can’t write fiction in my own voice,” Doctorow says. “That’s a discovery I made early in my career. I have to have a new narrator for each book.” It’s a technique that has injected a huge variety into his output, lending quite different voices to novels such as Loon Lake (1980) and The Waterworks (1994). His books have won a slew of major American awards (though the Pulitzer has eluded him), while several have been turned into movies and one,

Ragtime, became a hit musical produced by Canadian Garth Drabinsky.

With City of God, Doctorow has returned to the experimentalism and savage social inquiry of his 1971 masterpiece, The Book of Daniel. Both novels take the form of a notebook, a device

that allows Doctorow a wide freedom of invention. In the notebook that is City of God, Everett scribbles down random observations of New York life, stories from the two world wars, bits of science and philosophy, and the lyrics of popular songs as well as ideas for screenplays and novels, a It all adds up to a vast, 1 kaleidoscopic—and 7 often confusing—pic's ture of human life at the 1 end of the 20th century. New York is the main focus, but the City of God (the book takes its title from St. Augustine’s great theological work of the same name) is really any major city confronting the onslaught of history and global change.

Offering a rationale for his book’s disjointed postmodernist form, Doctorow says: “We don’t think in a linear fashion like we did even 30 years ago. Our minds are like clusters of Web sites that we keep hopping between. We get meaning from discontinuity. We’re the culture of the short take. I think the book is almost a template for this contemporary mind of ours.” And with a twinkle in his eye, he paraphrases the American writer Mary McCarthy: “ When people in the 19th century read a novel, they wanted to know what was going to happen. Now, we just want to know what’s happening.”

Yet through all its convolutions, City of God creates a gripping sense of the moral and spiritual dilemmas faced by humans at the turn of the millennium. At the core of Everett’s notebook is the tale of a radical Anglican minister, Tom Pemberton. After a large brass cross is stolen from his church, he discovers it on the roof of a progressive synagogue run by a pair of married rabbis, Joshua Gruen and Sarah Blumenthal. They are as upset by the apparent sacrilege as Thomas, but the migrating cross carries a deeper meaning than any of them can fathom at the moment. Not until Joshua dies and Tom, in the process of converting to Judaism, marries the voluptuous Sarah, does anyone—including the reader—realize that what has just happened is a mingling of Christianity and Judaism.

That marriage of faiths must be understood in the context of the whole novel—which is, in one sense, the recorded evils of the 20th century. Everett’s notebook contains many choice samplings of the bloodiest epoch known to man, including a spellbinding memoir of the destruction of a Lithuanian Jewish ghetto by the Nazis. Such material creates an enormous pressure: in its subtext, City of God is arguing that humanity has to find a new way of looking at reality, because the old ways will only lead to the same old destructive behaviour.

It is hardly surprising that Doctorow has situated his novel in his beloved New York, already the setting for several of his books. Today, the novelist lives in a Manhattan apartment with his wife of 45 years, Helen (they have three children), and is an avid walker on the island’s crowded streets. “Walking among others energizes me,” he says. “And besides, it’s the fastest way to get around town.” But Doctorow also thinks that cities are a critical proving ground for humanity. “New York, like Toronto or any other major, global, multicultural city, carries a sense of the future. Whether we end up, as a result of planetary stress, in an apocalyptic mess, or whether we can make it all work, will be decided here, in streets like this.” And he nods towards the window where, in the avenue outside, the local version of the City of God is tangled in a traffic jam honking and growling its way through the spring sunshine. CD