Tuesday, April 19, 2016

the last book I read

Ragtime by EL Doctorow.

It's New York City (and its environs) in the first decade-and-a-half of the 20th century - so if there were ever a time and place where it could be said that Great Things Are Afoot, this would be it. The invention of the motor car, the skyscraper, the movies, all fuelled by a relentless influx of immigrants from all over the world; mainly Europe but plenty of more exotic places as well.

And the people: Henry Ford, JP Morgan, Harry Houdini, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Emma Goldman - all in or around New York at this time doing their various things for the advancement of humanity.

Amid all this momentous stuff there are some actual people living their lives as well. For the purposes of the novel these are: a WASP family living in New Rochelle, just outside the city, an Eastern European immigrant and his young daughter, and a black musician and his fiancée. The WASP family are known, slightly impersonally, as Father, Mother, Mother's Younger Brother and "the boy". Father goes off on expeditions, including Peary's 1909 North Pole expedition, while Mother's Younger Brother moons around fairly aimlessly in that way young men do until he becomes obsessed with socialite Evelyn Nesbit and the media circus surrounding her and her husband Harry Thaw. Having met Evelyn through the radical Emma Goldman and conducted a brief affair with her, Mother's Younger Brother finds himself open to radical ideas.

As it happens Coalhouse Walker has a radical idea for him - having been victimised by some of the New York fire department and had his car (a Ford Model T) confiscated, Coalhouse embarks on a campaign of terror against the city with an expanding band of sidekicks to get compensation. Coalhouse also has a fiancée, Sarah, and a child, who ends up living with Mother and Father after Sarah dies. Coalhouse ropes Mother's Younger Brother (who has an aptitude for explosives) into his cause, but things inevitably end in tears, and, in Coalhouse's case, a bullet-ridden death at the hands of the New York police. Meanwhile some of the carefree living will have to stop, as World War I is on the verge of breaking out.

I suppose you'd classify Ragtime at least partly as "historical fiction" in that it takes a real, well-documented period of time and some real, well-documented historical figures and weaves a fictional narrative around them. It mucks around with the rules slightly by having some of the "real" people do things they probably didn't actually do, like the rather fanciful whimsical interlude of Freud and Jung riding on the Tunnel of Love at Coney Island. As always there are some shades of grey here - I'm not sure you'd class, for instance, Turbulence as "historical fiction" despite its featuring some real-life events.

The trick with this sort of thing is to ensure that the transitions between real-life stuff which is documented in the history books and the stuff you've made up just to drive the story along aren't too lumpy and jarring. The only place where this doesn't seem seamless is in the character of Coalhouse Walker, his transition into urban terrorist, and his co-opting of Mother's Younger Brother into his band of outlaws. Interestingly this bit of the novel was apparently adapted (or stolen, depending how happy you are with the amount of attribution Doctorow gave for doing it) from an earlier (19th century) novel called Michael Kohlhaas by German author Heinrich von Kleist, itself apparently based on the real-life (16th century) story of Hans Kohlhase and his doomed attempt to get some redress for the mistreatment of his horses.

The distancing device whereby few of the (fictional) central characters have names is a slightly odd one - it doesn't divorce you from caring about individuals in the same way as Last And First Men does, but it does keep you at arm's length in terms of engaging with what happens to them. It also just reinforces the point that the book's main concern is the Great Sweep Of History, rather than the little people who populate it, and if some of the individuals get a bit lost, well, so be it. There might therefore be a sense in which you find it difficult to engage with any of the major characters - apart from the bit where Mother's Younger Brother falls out of a wardrobe while having a furtive wank in Evelyn Nesbit's hotel room. Well, we've all done it.

As with Under The Volcano, this is a dead cert for just about any list of "great 20th-century novels", and sure enough it pops up in the TIME magazine list of 100 greatest 20th-century novels. It was also made into a film in 1981 which featured James Cagney in his last appearance.

Here's Doctorow's appearance in the Paris Review's Art of Fiction series of long meandering interviews.

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