“Essentially,” E. L. Doctorow told one interviewer, “I believe you have to reinvent fiction with each and every book; you’ve got to take the conventions and break them down, reconstitute them.” The strongest impulse in twentieth century literature, Doctorow told another, has been “to assault fiction, assault the forms, destroy it so it can rise again. You let go of the tropes one by one. You get rid of the lights, you get rid of the music, you forego the drum roll, and finally you do the high-wire act without the wire.”
In practice, what the attitudes expressed in these statements mean is that Doctorow’s work has combined an aversion to repeating himself with a persistent intention. The aversion has made versatility and daring distinguishing marks of his fiction; the intention has made his individual books take on the status of pieces of a single oeuvre.
Each Doctorow book seems a new departure. With each, he creates a different narrative voice, focuses on a different time and place, experiments with a different style, and explores a different aspect of American experience. In Welcome to Hard Times (1960), the time is the nineteenth century, the setting is the Old West, and the narrator is a cowardly mayor plagued by existential angst. In The Book of Daniel (1971), the time is the Cold War 1950’s and the explosive 1960’s, the focus is the Old Left’s legacy to the New, the narrator is an angry, self-mocking graduate student whose life story incorporates the radicalism of both eras. In Ragtime (1975), the time is the turn of the century, the style mixes real and imagined figures, and the narrative voice is a verbal equivalent of ragtime music. In Loon Lake (1980), the time is the Depression, the form is a 1970’s blend of Horatio Alger and proletarian novel, and the narrators include the main character, a failed poet, and a computer. In Lives of the Poets (1984), the time is the 1980’s, the form is a series of related stories, and the narrative voice is pastiche of the sounds of contemporary American fiction. In World’s Fair, the time is, again, the Depression, the setting is the Bronx, the form blends fiction and memoir into a Bildungsroman, and the narration is divided between a young boy, his older self, his mother, and his brother.
Beneath its variety and versatility, however, each of Doctorow’s books represents another contribution to a continuing project. That project has focused on testing the limits of genre, blurring (and so, challenging) the accepted boundaries between the real and the imagined, the historical and the fictional. (Thus, to accuse Doctorow, as some reviewers have, of failing to be “fully novelistic” in Ragtime and World’s Fair is to miss his artistic point completely.) In Ragtime, the metaphor for this artistic challenge to conventional notions of reality and fiction is Harry Houdini, forced to think of increasingly more dangerous escapes so that his illusions can compete with “the real-world act.” In World’s Fair, Doctorow’s project is embodied in a circus clown who climbs the high wire after “the experts” are done.Slipping and sliding about holding on to the wire for dear life, he was actually doing stunts far more difficult than any that had gone on before. This was confirmed, invariably, as he doffed his clown garments one by one and emerged the star who headlined the high-wire act . I took profound instruction from this hoary circus routine . There was art in the thing, the power of illusion, the mightier power of the reality behind it. What was first true was then false, a man was born from himself.
Doctorow’s versatility and his effort to bring about the rebirth of...
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