Loon Lake

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

In Loon Lake, Doctorow uses just about every device that has come to be associated with the contemporary mode in prose fiction: a shifting point of view, a metafictional frame, doublings and layerings with the mirror as major metaphor, use of the dream or dream structure, elements of what has been called “magic realism.” The whole purpose being somehow to communicate the nonlinear, the synchronistic through a form (the novel) which by its nature is linear, because, try as we might, we read words one after another while seconds tick away. When the effort is successful, as it is in such masters of the contemporary mode as Vladimir Nabokov, Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Thomas Pynchon, and even the Joseph Heller of Catch-22, the effect is stunning; readers are caught in new dimensions. Doctorow, however, is no Nabokov, at least not yet. In Loon Lake the mechanism is there, but it creaks; the parts need oiling; still Doctorow’s effort is mighty, and the result praiseworthy.

Although the major focal characters of the novel are Joe Paterson and Warren Penfield, the point of view shifts from first person to third and occasionally to second as an apparent author speaks directly to the reader. Chapters primarily in first person are juxtaposed with chapters in third person and all of this is juxtaposed with poems (some annotated), and what appears to be computer based data. Part one of Chapter One, for example, begins in first person with the voice of Joe. On page eleven the first-person voice shifts to third person for the space of a paragraph and then moves back to first person. In Chapter Two, the poem that was started in Chapter One becomes longer and merges with computer data composing Warren Penfield. Chapter Three begins in the third person and then shifts to the first-person voice of Joe. Chapter Four gives the reader more computer information about Warren. Chapter Five is a dramatic scene focusing on Warren but told in the third person. This kind of juxtaposition of point of view continues throughout the novel. The final chapter of the novel is a composite of all points of view used, with the last page being a sheet of computer data.

The shifting point of view, used to make the point that no one view is totally authoritative, is undercut by the fact that all the voices actually turn out to be the same voice, thus the metafictional frame. Metafiction is fiction about fiction, and in this novel narrative merges with poems which merge with computer data, all three modes telling the same story. That Warren Penfield is a poet is, of course, no accident, but a strategy, as is the fact that he is the seeker of the koan whose answer would involve him in an unspeakable paradox. The unspeakable paradox is what Doctorow seeks in the novel, so that, in a sense, author is character and character, author; a mirroring that reflects the major structural patterns in the novel.

Although Joe Paterson and Warren Penfield are a generation apart in years, and Warren a poet and Joe a young roughneck, they are set up as symbolic doubles. Joe, born in Paterson, New Jersey, of Polish parents whose name is unpronounceable, is an isolate. His mother and father work in a factory, and they live on Mechanic Street. For the first years of his life he is lonely and sick, but at the age of fifteen, he takes to the streets and becomes adept at thieving. The end of the first chapter finds Joe in the symbolic act of stealing money from the poorbox in a Catholic church. Caught by the priest who is doubled with God, the Father; Joe, in an act of rebellion, kicks the priest in the groin and flings the money in the air as he runs away.

Warren is born in Ludlow, Colorado, and his father works in the mines. A gifted child, Warren, like Joe, is detached from his parents; and although not himself violent, he finds that watching violence thrills him. Both Warren and Joe are from “company” families and bound up with the capitalist F. W. Bennett. Warren’s family is forced away from their company home after a strike. This is one of the reasons that Warren seeks Bennett in his private retreat at Loon Lake and attempts to kill him, although he fails.

Warren is in Seattle in 1918 for the first general strike in United States history; this is the year of Joe’s birth, and one year after the United States entered the first great war. It is the result of a threatened strike in Atlanta that Red James is murdered and Joe arrested, as a consequence of which Joe goes back to Loon Lake, not actually but symbolically, to kill Bennett. Warren thinks of Joe as the son he might have had, and Joe, in taking Clara away from Warren and lying to him about it, metaphorically castrates him, repeating his act with the Catholic priest.

Warren serves in World War I and Joe in World War II and both are decorated for their actions. Warren’s death with Lucinda, Bennett’s wife, in an airplane crash, makes it...

(The entire section is 2030 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Barkhausen, Jochen. “The Confusing Recovery of History in E. L. Doctorow’s Loon Lake.” In E. L. Doctorow: A Democracy of Perception, edited by Herwig Friedl and Dieter Schulz. Heidelberg: Verlag Die Blaue Eule, 1988. Study of the relationship between history and experimental narrative technique in the novel.

Fowler, Douglas. Understanding E. L. Doctorow. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992. Short biographical chapter followed by chapter-length analyses of Doctorow’s novels. Chapter 5 focuses on Loon Lake as Bildungsroman.

Gross, David S. “Tales of Obscene Power: Money and Culture, Modernism and History in the Fiction of E. L. Doctorow.” In E. L. Doctorow: Essays and Conversations, edited by Richard Trenner. Princeton, N.J.: Ontario Review Press, 1983. Analysis of the relation of money, power, and isolation.

Harter, Carol C., and James R. Thompson. E. L. Doctorow. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Short biography, supplemented by helpful chronology of Doctorow’s life. Provides an overview and assessment of the novel. Chapter 4 examines the synchronicity in the Loon Lake narrative and the ties between Joe and his two surrogate fathers, Bennett and Penfield.

Parks, John G. E. L. Doctorow. New York: Continuum, 1991. Doctorow’s early life is discussed, followed by analyses of Doctorow’s novels. Chapter 5 focuses on the Depression-era content of the novel and Joe’s search for identity.