I’ve been a fan of E.L. Doctorow’s work since I first discovered Ragtime back in the 1970s, and I’ve read everything by him I’ve been able to get hold of. (The exception, of course, is his science fiction novel, Big As Life, which was his second novel and impossible to get hold of even in a second hand edition – I asked about it once at a used book store in Berkeley, and when the guy checked it up I learned that copies sell for around $600, a bit out of my price range even for a book I so dearly wish to own.) Nevertheless, as big a fan as I am of Doctorow’s work, I have to admit that not everything he writes is wonderful. His most recent novel, City of God, for instance, is pretty poor. Still, I was encouraged when I heard that the new novel was about Sherman’s March through Georgia and the Carolinas. Doctorow has not directly written a war novel before, but he has been at his best when he has taken an historical subject. Reading it, the book did not just live up to my expectations, it exceeded them. This has to count as one of the best things he has written.
For a start, it fits within the context of his other books as he has never attempted to do before. Remember Coalhouse Walker Jr in Ragtime? Well, here we meet Coalhouse Walker, the runaway slave who attaches himself to Sherman’s army. And the creepy Doctor Sartorius, the villain in The Waterworks? He turns up here as a surgeon in the Union Army. That we know something of what the future holds in store has the effect of helping to fix the events of this novel in their time. But these forward echoes are only a small part of what makes this such an excellent novel.
This is not a straightforward narrative, there are no characters we identify with and whose story we follow from first to last, there is no overarching plot to give us narrative security. Sherman’s March from Atlanta has already begun when we join it, and at no point do we see it through a single pair of eyes. Rather it is a massive sweeping event that is never fully grasped by any of the characters, even by Sherman. Instead we see aspects of it, glimpses of different moments from different perspectives, sometimes contradictory, generally conflicting. It is a mosaic that is never completed to give a total picture, but rather remains a shadowy mix of hints and guesses rather as it must be to be caught up in a great event of war such as this. We meet southern landowners struggling to hold on to some measure of self or sanity amid the vast destruction all around them. We meet slaves tagging along behind the army for the promise they have conjured from it. We meet soldiers on both sides, whose lives are made up simply of pain, terror, uncertainty, and the mad hope of staying alive. We travel with the army surgeons, through discarded limbs, inadequate facilities, and a woeful failure to recognise new medical advances. We follow confederate deserters chancing their arm by pretending to be union soldiers. There is a black girl who is the daughter of her white master and who is pale enough to seem white herself, a girl just on the point of growing up amid all the turmoil, so she has to learn to make sense of herself when nothing around her makes sense. There is the daughter of a southern judge who becomes a nurse with the union army. There are, as in Ragtime, real historic characters such as Sherman, Kilpatrick, even Lincoln and Grant put in a brief appearance; and alongside these are a host of vividly drawn fictional characters. But none of these take centre stage for long, and as in a real war several of those who seem like major characters will suddenly die in stupid circumstances, or simply disappear from the picture. Others, who seem to play a major part, only actually appear half or two-thirds of the way through the novel. You are never totally sure what has happened to anyone, because this is wartime and it is confused and confusing and there is no way that anyone can make sense of it.
At the heart of the book is no character or set of characters, nor is the heart occupied by a story. The heart of the book is the March – or rather, because the March is far too big a thing to encompass, the heart of the book is the swirl of dust clouds, the echo of feet, the trampled ground, the swathe of destruction, and the terrors that flow around the March. In language that is as vivid and enthralling as anything I have seen by Doctorow, he has created an unforgettable novel about being caught on the fringes of something too big to understand, and too terrible to ignore.
First published at Livejournal, 30 December 2005.