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An American tale

THE WRITING LIFE

September 24, 2006|David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

This is territory Doctorow first explored in the late 1990s, in a lecture called "The Politics of God." "I began to wonder about time," he says. "Is it a loop? Are we going backwards? I have the rabbi talk about this in 'City of God.' " Such issues reside at the heart of that novel, which may be Doctorow's finest: an expanding universe of a book that juxtaposes the Holocaust with questions of theology and quantum physics to frame a portrait of the universe as essentially unknowable, in which truth is elusive and even our connection to one another can never be enough. Similar concerns motivate "Sweet Land Stories," his 2004 collection of short fiction, and the essays in "Reporting the Universe" and "Creationists," as well as "The March," with its dense, nearly Faulknerian swirls of language, its multiple perspectives that highlight, with visceral immediacy, the existential chaos of war.

IT'S tempting to interpret this as a trend, a movement, even a turning point in Doctorow's career. Certainly, he's put together an incredible run over the last six years, publishing more and (arguably) more densely wrought material than at any other point in his writing life. In his view, though, all that is coincidental rather than programmatic, a matter of how "every book encodes your life." "The March" may share elements with Doctorow's earlier novels, but it also has to do with the author's "melancholy view of the way things are now and the endless warring that the human race goes through, to which there seems to be no end."

The key is voice, language, the ebb and flow of the sentences, the way they get inside us, creating an emotional undertone. "Every book has its own voice," Doctorow explains. "I think there's a kind of ventriloqual thing that goes on when I write. I don't ever want to hear my own voice; it's one of the worst things that can happen. And the fact that the voice in my books keeps changing makes it easier for me to indulge my sense of language and to play with the music in words, the rhythms in sentences, which are a large part of how any book gets written. In 'The Book of Daniel,' I wrote 150 pages and threw them away, they were so bad. It wasn't until I realized that Daniel should write the book, that it should be his voice rather than mine, that it began to work."

In the end, this multiplicity echoes back to the Transcendentalists -- or, at least, to one of their fellow travelers, Walt Whitman, who, as he liked to exult, contained multitudes. At the same time, it's a comment on the mystery of creation, which has always been central to Doctorow's work. Early in "Creationists," in an essay on "Moby-Dick," he separates "those writers who make their language visible, who draw attention to it in the act of writing and don't let us forget it -- Melville, Joyce, Nabokov in our own time, the song-and dance men, the strutting dandies of literature -- from those magicians of the real who write to make their language invisible, like lit stage scrims that pass us through to the scene behind, so that we see the life they are rendering as if no language is producing it." But in truth, the line is far less conscious, as Doctorow's career shows. At different moments, he has been both types of author; it's hard to imagine novels more writerly than "The March" or "Ragtime," while "The Book of Daniel" and "World's Fair" are less overt. "Whatever identity the book has," Doctorow says simply, "will force you to write a certain way. The language will precede any intention you may have."

The same could be said of stories, which continue to exist all around us, always, framing how we see the world. These stories may have shifted, may have become more discontinuous, but this only makes them more essential, especially in a universe where their value is no longer assured. "Without getting too sanctimonious about it," Doctorow says, "I relate storytelling to any kind of witness. That's what Emerson means when he says, 'a man is the faculty of reporting, and the universe is the possibility of being reported.' For some people, the book has already been written and there's no need for any other book. But in a pluralistic, presumably democratic society, the inquiry is endless, it goes on. It's up for grabs, whatever the truth is. And every book is an answer to another book." *

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