Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Ragtime

THIS was the book I've been waiting for. Lately it's been taking me at least a month to finish a book...but I managed to knock this one out in a week and a half. In fact, I think this was the first time since March or April that I read more than one book in a month.

E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime was fabulous. It's the interweaving story of three families in the New York City area at the beginning of the 20th century: a respectable upper-middle class clan, a family of Jewish immigrants, and African-American Coalhouse Walker. Stringing them all together is a cast of famous historical figures, from Morgan and Ford to Goldman and Houdini. This type of book can easily seem contrived, but Ragtime didn't. It was a fun read, compelling and entertaining. I was constantly looking up the historical information, trying to figure out what was real and what Doctorow had invented. I was never so intrigued by Harry Houdini and Emma Goldman...this book made me want to go out and read all the biographies and historical writings about this time period that I could get my hands on.

The New York Times review of the novel called it "a highly original experiment in historical fiction." Here's what makes me laugh about this: within the first 10 pages, I kept thinking - this reminds me of something...the style, the cadence of the prose, the subject matter. And it quickly dawned on me why it was so familiar: John Dos Passos's U.S.A. Trilogy (especially the only third of it that I've read thus far - 42nd Parallel). It not only has the same rhythm, and deals with the same time period, but it also does the same thing: interweaves the lives of different families with historical figures to form a narrative of America. Also, there were elements of the Coalhouse Walker plot that echoed Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man. But that was just a nagging feeling in comparison to the screamingly obvious parallels with Dos Passos. In a book of lesser literary merit, this would have really annoyed me. I become possessive and loyal to certain authors, and for some reason Dos Passos is one of them. He has been virtually forgotten, when his literary talents are just as great as his contemporaries (and friends) Fitzgerald and Hemingway. If I wouldn't have simply enjoyed Ragtime, had so much fun reading the novel, this post would be very different. I would be yelling, how dare this Doctorow person rip off Dos Passos, and then he gets hailed as "original." I would be calling out the bullshit. And while it really isn't as original as the NY Times review would lead you to believe, it was a lot of fun to read.

This was my first encounter with Doctorow - do his other books also deal with historical subjects in a similar manner? I will definitely be revisiting him in the future. And Ragtime also made me want to go buy some Scott Joplin cds.

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