I wake to the news that E.L. Doctorow has died, and I feel a sense of loss that very few writers instill in me, particularly since I never met the man. But I’ve loved his work for very nearly forty years. No, that understates the case: I’ve been obsessed with his work for most of that time. I’ve read everything I could lay my hands on, his essays, his science fiction novel (which was never republished after its initial appearance in 1966), on the critical shelves behind me as I write this are two books of interviews with and essays on the man. I don’t love everything he wrote; two of his novels, City of God and the last, Andrew’s Brain, have a contemporary setting and I think they are his weakest (perhaps because of that). But others of his books are, I think, just about perfect. Continue reading
Brian McHale, Christine Brook-Rose, Christopher Priest, Don DeLillo, E.L. Doctorow, Frederic Jameson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Geoffrey Chaucer, Henry James, Iain Banks, James Joyce, John Fowles, Katherine Dunn, Kathy Acker, Kim Newman, Kurt Vonnegut, Laurence Sterne, Miguel de Cervantes, Paul Auster, Richard Jefferies, Robert Coover, Samuel R. Delany, Steve Erickson, Thomas Pynchon, Virginia Woolf, William Gibson, William S. Burroughs, William Vollman
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 … Continue reading
Bruce Olds, Charles S. Peirce, D.H. Lawrence, Don DeLillo, E.L. Doctorow, E.M. Forster, Gary Wills, Grover Cleveland, Harold Evans, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, John Brown, Oswald Garrison Villard, Owen Wister, Robert Coover, Robert Heinlein, Russell Banks, Steve Erickson, Steven Millhouser, William Gibson, William James
This was one of those I wrote for no reason other than that I loved Russell Banks’s novel, Cloudsplitter (1998) so much. I think I did try sending it out once, though without any great expectation, and I briefly considered including it in my first collection of essays, but in truth the only place this ever appeared previously was in an apa. It’s an essay that grows out of my interest in the American Civil War, so there’s no science fiction here, but there is philosophy, which suggests a sort of continuity. Continue reading
Only Revolutions by Mark Z. Danielewski. Okay, House of Leaves was brilliant, and this isn’t. But it gets better as you go on and learn the rhythm of the book – it might be better to read it as sub-epic verse rather than prose fiction. The main problem is the fiddly nature of the work. It starts in large print and the print gets smaller as the book progresses. But you don’t actually read all the way through, it is structured so you read eight pages then flip the book and read the next eight pages (a large drop capital signals the turn). What you get one way is the story of two perennial sixteen year olds on a rambunctious, sexually-charged journey through middle America between the 1860s and 1960s; what you get the other way is the story of two perennial sixteen year olds on a rambunctious, sexually-charged journey through middle America between the 1960s and 2060s. One journey is told by the boy, one by the girl, but incidents echo and duplicate between the two and each story ends in death and rebirth. And the hinge point (as we discover in the chronology that occupies the margin of every page) is inevitably the assassination of John F, Kennedy. Its hypnotic in its way, but the technical ambition isn’t matched by the literary achievement.
The Fall of Troy by Peter Ackroyd. There was a time, probably between Hawksmoor and Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (with the brilliant English Music as its high point) when Ackroyd was one of the most exciting novelists working in Britain. Then somehow the novels lost their edge, they became thinner (both in size and content), and often read more like adjuncts to his non-fiction than original works in their own right. And he was always a novelist of London, anything he wrote that drifted out of the city (First Light, Milton in America) lost any spirit or liveliness. So Fall of Troy is a novel you approach initially more out of duty than excitement – it’s a late, thin novel, and not only is it not set in London, it isn’t even set in Britain. And yet it is easily the best thing he has done in many years. It is a fictionalised version of Schliemann’s famous excavations at Troy. In this version Schliemann is Obermann, a bombastic fraud driven more by faith and enthusiasm than by any archaeological or scientific integrity. He interprets every find according to the story he wants to discover, and when inscriptions are discovered which suggest the Trojans are not the Indo-Europeans he so fondly imagines it leads to cataclysmic consequences. This is a book to restore your faith in Peter Ackroyd the novelist.
Creationists: Selected Essays 1993-2006 by E.L. Doctorow. I can still recall the sheer invigorating shock I felt when I first encountered Ragtime, and I have read just about anything by Doctorow I’ve been able to get my hands on ever since. (I’d still love to find his science fiction novel, Big as Life, which he ritualistically lists among previous publications in every one of his books, but which has been so successfully withdrawn from public view that copies are valued in more hundreds of dollars than I could ever hope to afford.) His non-fiction (of which several collections have now appeared) tends to be short and accessible, they are mostly written as reviews rather than essays, but they are every bit as thoughtful as you would expect. These pieces deal with the act of creation – generally covering writers, mostly Americans such as Poe and Melville, though there is also one essay on Einstein and one on the bomb. They are not so much reviews of books but insightful and often imaginative engagement with how they wrote, what they were doing. It provides a surprisingly fresh perspective on writers who have already been the subject of a massive amount of analysis.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy is one of those writers I’ve always meant to read but never got round to before. After reading The Road I will almost certainly come back to him. It is a bleak, unrelenting novel that is, I think, meant to ask what is the possibility of redemption when there is no possibility of hope. A man and his young boy walk through a post-apocalyptic America. We are never told anything about the apocalypse, but we see its aftermath: ash everywhere, no living birds or animals, a nuclear winter closing in with ash-blackened snow. The only food is what can be scavenged from the remnants of civilisation; mostly the pair go hungry. The man is sick, we know that right from the start; the boy has a Christ-like innocence; but everyone else they encounter along the way is a threat (we see often gruesome but also rather illogical signs of cannibalism). Much has been made of the spare nature of McCarthy’s prose, but it seems to me that there is a curiously gothic quality to his brevity, as if the more pared-down the prose the more baroque the image. Not an easy book to read, it is too despairing for that, but it is a haunting and powerful work.
Aegypt by John Crowley (or as I should perhaps more accurately call it, The Solitudes, since Aegypt is the title for the sequence as a whole). Since Endless Things is now on my shelf, I am setting out to read all four volumes ready for a review I’ll be writing for Strange Horizons. It’s the first time I’ve returned to the book in 20 years and I was delighted not by how well it held up (I expected that) but by how much more it seemed to contain, how it was a richer and more complex reading experience because of my residual memories of Love and Sleep and Daemonomania. Anyone who doesn’t immediately recognise this as one of the finest works of fantastic literature needs their head examining, as far as I am concerned.
First published at LiveJournal, 31 January 2007.
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. Continue reading