Sunday, May 24, 2009


"Fiction is essentially a means of deconstructing the aggregate fictions of a society."--E.L. Doctorow (sounding like Herbert Marcuse), interviewed in St. Petersburg (FL) Times, 11/16/08

Edgar sounds excessively professorial here. I essentially agree with him, but he sounds like a character in one of his novels, a dogmatist whom he would portray with understanding and compassion but not with enthusiasm or authorial endorsement.

I spent a few hours reading in Doctorow's most formally experimental fiction, The Book of Daniel, and I found its Barth-and-Cooverism a little tiresome. It's a very Seventies novel, and today it seems dated, too self-consciously self-conscious, too proud of the postmodernism it flaunts, just too damn pleased with itself. All of this may be deliberate, of course. Doctorow knows exactly what he's doing, and having his rather annoying central character narrate a book that is itself more than a little irritating may be both a paradoxically 'realist' touch and a swipe at the annoying self-righteousness of the Barth-and-Cooverites... Barth, Barthelme and Coover. Sounds like a lawfirm. "Barth, Barthelme and Coover. Your postmodern personal injury specialists. Call 1-800-SUE-THE-BASTARDS, that's 1-800-SUE-THE-BASTARDS, the number again is 1-800-SUE THE BASTARDS..." Anyway, The Book of Daniel, for all the interest of its subject matter, reads more like a formal experiment than an interesting novel. By the time of Ragtime, Doctorow had shifted his ironies away from the level of form to that of language, creating subtler but equally subversive effects. This strategy also, in Ragtime and Doctorow's subsequent novels, allows him to retrieve more traditional forms, if only to subvert them. (Surely there's a parallel with the films of Robert Altman here.) I suspect, however, that few readers read Ragtime closely enough to see Doctorow gesturing at them through the text. But that's all right. Some of us did notice.

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