Tuesday, August 25, 2009

209. City of God – E.L. Doctorow

History: Published in 2000.
Plot: The story is mainly concerned with Pem, an Episcopalian priest, and the cross in his church gets stolen and ends up on the roof of a synagogue. And he meets Sarah, a rabbi, who with her husband also a Rabbi run the small synagogue. Also, it’s about Everett, a friend of Pems, and his adventures with women, I think he is also a writer. And a physicist, Wittgenstein, whose paragraphs are mainly about physics, astronomy. And also there is Sarah’s father, whose diary from the Ghettos in Europe were found, first by Sarah’s first husband, Joshua, who got beat to death in Lithuania, then by Pem. Pem and Sarah eventually get married.
Review: Why do authors tell a story in such a confusing way? The book is filled with a rambling narrative that is a mix of alternating voices that touch on such matters as theology, popular music, astronomy, physics and science, war, love, the verisimilitude of film to life (and distortions thereof). And the abruptly changing voices are not identified. Doctorow apparently calls this play on words “the kitchen sink” style of prose, and I don’t like it. Faced with such frustrating disjointedness, we're not sure who is speaking to us in any given passage, what the point is or why it matters. As soon as we catch one thread of narrative and begin to follow it gratefully, we are twisted around and spun into another story, another era, another life. Slowly it comes to us: The lack of linearity, the parallels to the literary collage of Scripture, the narrative and philosophical jumble are all part of the point. The novel itself is an illustration of our existence; this is the confusion of the world, and it's up to us to make sense of it. In "City of God," E.L. Doctorow makes use of a biblical structure: a convergence of literary genres dealing with a common theme. He introduces a series of tenuously related stories interleaved with philosophical sketches, cultural histories, theological ruminations, science lessons, songs, film commentary, poetry, prophecy and elaborate fantasies. Like the Bible, like a city -- and perhaps even like God himself, Doctorow intimates -- literature is "a great historically amassed communal creation" based on the Word and on the accretions of culture that language makes possible.
In line with the biblical tradition, he begins with a bang -- the big bang, in fact -- a vivid introduction to what Doctorow's alter-ego narrator, Everett, describes as a "horrifying" cosmos that somehow created its own space and time to expand into. A God involved in such a Genesis, Everett thinks, is not only beyond our understanding but ultimately so fearsome as to provide no hope of consolation.
Opening Line: “So the theory has it that the universe expanded exponentially from a point, a singular space/time point, a moment/thing, some original particulate event or quantum substantive happenstance, to the extent that the word explosion is inadequate, although the theory is known as the Big Bang.”
Closing Line: At this point we are introduced to the hero and heroine of the movie, a vitally religious couple who run a small progressive synagogue on the Upper West Side.”
Quotes: “It is my laboratory here in my skull. I can assure you it is barely furnished.”
“Not a song in the heart, you wimp, a roar in the loins, a screech in the brain, a blinding glimpse of God’s work, and that is it for you forever, you’re theirs.”
Rating: okay

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