Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The exploitation of women is one metaphor for the capitalistic exploitation of workers and nature. In an ironic chapter of “data” about Bennett’s life, the narrator discusses capitalism, damning with faint praise the high living standards under capitalism and offering a version of the trickle-down theory from the wealthy to the poor: “And while we may not admire always the personal motives of our business leaders we can appreciate the inevitable percolation of the good life as it comes down through our native American soil.” In the next chapter, Joe describes the power of business leaders such as Bennett: “Mr. Antobody Bennett was a big man who . . . made the universe punch in like the rest of us.” Bennett can control not only time but also nature, in the form of Loon Lake. He imposes his will on it, plumbs its depths, and makes an isolated fortress of his estate. In Loon Lake, Doctorow suggests that the American Dream is really a nightmare. Attaining the dream does not necessarily depend on diligence and thrift; and when the dream is achieved, the “dreamer” is isolated from society and is morally and emotionally barren (neither Joe nor Bennett produces any children).

In order to convey these themes, Doctorow experiments with narrative. He includes many narrative threads, annotated poems, accounts of the impending death of Penfield and Lucinda, sociological analyses, résumés, and letters; Joe, though, is the narrator. He switches from first to third person to describe himself, eliminates punctuation in stream-of-consciousness passages, and intersperses poems with prose, all in an effort to suggest not only a character but also a narrative in the process of becoming. Since the novel is not chronological and perspectives are not easily identified, the reader is forced to be an active participant in the creation of the narrative. The novel is about characters, but since the reader sees characters narrating, it is also about the writing of fiction.