Wednesday, January 30, 2008

RAGTIME by E.L. Doctorow

Upon rereading E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, one of the books that showed me what the modern novel was capable of when I read it many years ago at age 12 or 13, I find it even better than I remembered. It's a great American novel, propulsive and generous, bursting with life and death. Its complex (but deceptively simple-looking) prose style constantly undermines itself with an irony that only rarely flashes into bitterness. The book can be weakly misread as a nostalgic fugue on American themes, but this is to miss the author's (and the narrator's) careful deconstruction of the nostalgic myth he constructs. The deconstructive, subversive ironies don't end until the last page, when characters in the novel become characters in a movie; thus does fictional realism acknowledge its obsolescence in a world of filmed 'reality,' a world carefully delineated, in the novel's closing pages, in terms of corporate power: industrial, military, media. Maybe that's one of the major arcs Doctorow is describing here: the fall of America from an ideology of liberal individuality into one of corporatism and conformity, accompanied by the death or deportation of all rebels (Emma Goldman, for example). Damn, this is a good book...

Another thing I admire about it is the way Doctorow breaks all the accepted rules of modern storytelling. (In the mid-1970's, it would appear, a bestselling novel could still be experimental. Those certainly were the days...) It's a book that more often 'tells' than 'shows.' Indeed, it's an almost obsessively narrated novel, obviously foregrounding its own telling, its status as histoire, a story about history. Doctorow also delays introduction of a major character, Coalhouse Walker, until halfway through the novel, a very strange and counter-intuitive choice if my suspicions are correct and the Coalhouse story was the seed of the entire novel: Ragtime as an Americanization of Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas. Since Walker is the ragtime pianist whose presence explains the title, my intuition is probably on target.

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