Wednesday, March 16, 2011

388. The Book of Daniel – E.L Doctorow

History: Published in 1971, this book is a semi-historical novel by E. L. Doctorow, loosely based on the trial and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.
Plot: Writing his thesis ('The Book of Daniel') Daniel investigates the background to his parents' conviction and execution with his adoptive parents (the Lewins). The final dénouement is the revisiting, in flashback, of the death of his parents, and in due course the death from nervous disorder (and attempted suicide) of Daniel's sister. The novel closes with the library in which Daniel is working being closed by student unrest, and Daniel closing his work with a parody of lines from Chapter 12 of the Biblical Book of Daniel.
The book is written in four parts, and in each Daniel is the principal narrator; the narrative moves fluidly and rapidly between 1967 ('the present') and flashback (to the late 40s/early 50s), and between first and third person:-
1. Memorial Day - Opens, in 1967, with Daniel, his young wife, Phyllis and baby Paul, walking to the sanatorium to see Susan; closes with the dropping of atom bomb in Japan
2. Halloween - closes with the lawyer, Ascher, telling Daniel and Susan of the forthcoming start of the Isaacsons' trial
3. Starfish - closes with Daniel's bruising involvement in an anti-draft march, whilst his sister (the starfish of the title) is lying dying from complications following her suicide attempt. Daniel says with irony to Phyllis through broken teeth '...It looks worse than it is. There was nothing to it. It is a lot easier to be a revolutionary nowadays than it used to be.'
4. Christmas - recalls the closing moments of the trial, including the key evidence from their co-accused, Selig Mindish; Daniel's later search for, and discovery of Mindish, now senile, in Disneyland; and the funerals of Daniel's parents and his sister Susan.
Review: Doctorow displays an encyclopedic and detailed knowledge of both of those political periods, capturing the tone of the rhetoric, the pop music, the posters, the idealism, the hypocrisy, and the dilemmas confronting human beings caught up in political movements that seem more powerful than the people themselves. He is as unsparing in his treatment of sixties radicals as he is in his treatment of the cold government executioners who sent the Rosenbergs to their death.
One of most remarkable things about this book is the character of Daniel himself: sharply intelligent yet confused and conflicted, someone who sees all the angles yet cannot bring himself to act -- a modern-day Hamlet. The title's allusion to the biblical Daniel is reflected throughout the text in a number of clever ways as the narrative leaps between historical reflections, allegories, and vivid evocations of moments and events in the life of Daniel, his sister, and their families. It poignantly evokes the relationship between the two children and the various guardians who are assigned to care for them after society has arrested and executed their parents.
The other remarkable thing about this book is its use of language. Doctorow is a great prose stylist. To get an idea of how great he is, you should read both this book and Ragtime, which is a very different work. Ragtime is written in a style reminiscent of an old children's primer--simple, quaint sentences, gentle imagery. The Book of Daniel, by contrast, is full of incendiary language and is a very complex narrative full of jarring transitions -- language ideal, in other words, to capturing the feel of the political periods and events that are the subject of the book.
Opening Line: "On Memorial Day 1967, Daniel Lewin thumbed his way from New York to Worcester, Mass., in just under five hours."
Closing Line: "Go thy way Daniel: for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end."
Quotes: "You went out and took your stand, and did what had to be done, not because you expected anything from it, but because someday there would be retribution and you wanted just a lettle of it to bear your name."
Rating: Okay.

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