How long have I believed that we would come to a moment of release, a release from this suffering? When everything would be all right again. But there is no such moment. There is no end to this ordeal. Therefore they really are unendurable. I can’t endure them. They are such absurd pain, such impossible, intolerable pain. They are hideous with existence; we will all die of revulsion.
At long last! I don’t think there is any book I have been waiting this long to read. I know I first read Ragtime in the mid-1970s; the reviews had excited me so much that I got hold of the paperback the moment it appeared, which could make it as early as 1976. This gave me a taste for E.L. Doctorow’s work that I have never since lost. I quickly caught up with the previous novels, The Book of Daniel, Welcome to Hard Times (which was originally called Bad Man from Bodie), and subsequent books I acquired as soon as they came out. But there was one book I couldn’t find. Big As Life has not actually been disowned by Doctorow; it is listed among his previous publications in all of his books that I own, but it has never been reprinted since its Simon and Schuster hardback in the US in 1966. Secondhand copies of that book are like hen’s teeth, but throughout those pre-internet days I kept looking, in every secondhand bookshop I visited, year in, year out, my first port of call was the collection of Doctorow books. Once, in Berkeley, I asked the shopkeeper about it; he did a search and told me copies of the book were valued at $600. I didn’t have $600, but I kept looking.
As a Doctorow fanatic, I would have wanted the book anyway, but my interest was piqued fairly early on when I discovered that Big As Life was science fiction. Welcome to Hard Times was a deconstructed western, The Book of Daniel was a sort of spy story, Ragtime rearranged our notion of the historical novel, so it seemed that Doctorow was playing with genre and I wanted to see what he did with science fiction.
And now I have a copy. Not exactly a copy of the Simon & Schuster first edition, it must be said. Curiously, it is a photocopy of the first edition bound as a hardback by the library of a midwestern University. How it came to be produced, and how it came to the secondhand dealer we acquired it from, I can only speculate. I assume all was legitimate. To judge from the ‘Date Due’ slip still tipped into this copy, the book went into the University Library in July 1983 and was withdrawn in the summer of 1991, and between those dates was borrowed fewer than ten times. Not exactly in demand then, but I wanted it. Now I have it, and I’ve read it, and …
It isn’t exactly science fiction, though there is one section where Doctorow bandies scientific jargon with easy familiarity. But it is certainly fantastic. Other of his books have touched on the fantastic also, The Waterworks, for instance, and there are suggestions in City of God and Homer And Langley; but nothing has been as overtly fantastic as this novel.
It opens with the appearance in New York City, or rather in the harbour just offshore from Manhattan, of two giant figures. They tower above the skyscrapers, they would appear to be visible as far north as Connecticut (though the novel never leaves Manhattan, so we do not see this). Yet despite their size they are, or would appear to be, two fairly normal human beings, one male, one female, both naked. In addition to their gigantism, their time runs at a much slower rate. Early in the novel a plane flies into the head of the male (a scene that is an eerily uncomfortable pre-echo of 9/11); much later, nearly a year later in fact, a contusion begins to appear on the male’s brow, his hand starts to rise towards the site of the sting, and he begins to cry out in pain. That is the sum total of their direct interaction with common humanity, but while they do nothing, common humanity reacts alarmingly, dramatically, and that is what the book is all about.
Over the course of a year we see panic, a mass flight from New York, ham-fisted interventions by government and the military, an attempt to study the phenomenon that is continually hampered by political interference, a slow return to normality, renewed panic, religious revivalism, religious extremism both among those worshipping the two figures and among those who cast them as devils, an attempted military coup, and more. It is, in fact, a pretty accurate assessment of what is likely to happen in the event of such an irruption of the mysterious that serves no obvious purpose other than to demonstrate the smallness of our lives against the vast unknown.
All of this is told through three central characters.
Creighton is a down-at-heel historian. Early in the novel he is seen gathering together the manuscript pages of his uncompleted history of the United States, and we know it is never going to be completed and never going to be published. Late in the novel he is seen gathering together the manuscript pages of his uncompleted history of the phenomenon, and we know it is going to be completed and never going to be published. He is that sort of historian, a good man, honest but ineffectual, never more than middling in his chosen profession.
Red is a jazz musician, a bassist forever wheeling his instrument through the streets of New York even in the middle of riots. He appears to be a very good musician, but unlucky. Yet he is a chancer, an eternal optimist, happy to break the law whenever he feels he can get away with it, the sort of character whose confidence keeps us moving through all that happens in the novel. Though I can’t help feeling that his chosen musical form is indicative of a flaw in the novel. It is supposed to be contemporary, if not a few seconds into the future, yet by the time Doctorow was writing it the jazz scene in New York had already given way to the folk scene which in turn was beginning to be superceded by rock music, yet none of this is mentioned. It makes it feel as if, culturally, the novel is set ten years before its actual date. Nonetheless, for all of this, Red is still a great character.
His girlfriend, Sugarbush, the third part of this triumvirate, is not so great a character. Let’s be honest, Doctorow has generally been better at male characters than female, many of his books such as Welcome to Hard Times, The March, Billy Bathgate, Homer and Langley, have been set in predominantly male environments. Even so, his women have rarely been as sketchy as Sugarbush, a character whose role seems to consist of worrying about Red, trying to provide a conscience for Red, providing a secure anchor for Red, and being the voice of common sense in circumstances in which common sense is no longer a virtue. Even her shape, beautiful above the waist but with overlarge buttocks, seems cartoonish (and Doctorow provides no equivalent description of Creighton or Red).
The three of them come together during the mass exodus when the giants first appear; Red and Sugarbush have just looted a jewellery store, Creighton has just stolen a taxi and helps them get away. After this, Creighton finagles his way into a position on NYCRAD (New York Command, Research And Defense), which allows us to observe the fumblings and contradictions of the official response to the giants. Red, meanwhile, starts playing in the band of a religious revivalist outfit, which allows him to scout out other talented musicians and eventually forms a jazz band, though this eventually falls foul of renewed mob violence. Together, though, we are given a glimpse of how New York responds to the incursion from several revealing perspectives.
It is said that the reason Big As Life has not been available for nigh-on 50 years, is not that Doctorow disowned the book, but that he was dissatisfied with it and always intended to go back and revise it, as he had done with Bad Man From Bodie, but just never got around to it.
Certainly it is not a bad book, and really doesn’t deserve to be consigned to oblivion by its own author. There are passages that show us Doctorow at his supple, subtle best. Here, for instance, describing a fat man in a lift as witnessed by a musician:
He was elephantine, majestic. A cigarette with a long ash was gripped in his teeth. In the elevator he made a kind of respiratory music: his overtaxed lungs fought to take air in and fought harder to expel it. Red heard every prodigious breath as it wheezed and snarled through its cycle. The harmonics were a wonder.
At the same time, it is not a good book. There are too many moments when the narrative progression is jerky, sudden shifts in scene and personnel without any indication of how we got from A to B. At one point, we see Creighton, Red and Sugarbush pull up at a hotel in a stolen taxi, which they have decorated with stolen Civil Defence paraphernalia; the next moment they are in a hotel room in the middle of a long and complex scene with a mad retired army general who has never been mentioned before this point. How on earth General of the Army, Retired, Hugh D. Rockelmayer got into this picture remains beyond me, though he does go on to play a major part in the story. Alongside this jerky construction I’ve already mentioned the unsatisfactory character of Sugarbush and the fact that the contemporary New York scene feels out of time. So I can well see that the book could do with another going over.
But until that happens, I am really very glad to have had an opportunity to read this book.