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Sunday, June 19, 2016

What I'm reading (#14)

I was a little dubious while reading the first few pages of E. L. Doctorow's famous book Ragtime.  First, a good chunk of the characters are never mentioned by name -- there's Mother, Father, Grandfather, Mother's Younger Brother, and The Little Boy.  Second, the prose is choppy, made up of clipped, short sentences -- read aloud, it would sound like the reader was really irritated at whoever was listening.

But it grew on me.  The story is a twisty maze of characters, including some fictional ones (the above-mentioned, as well as a poor Jewish family, the young African American girl Sarah, and her lover, Coalhouse Walker, Jr.), along with some actual historical figures (the pinup girl Evelyn Nesbit, the multi-millionaire J. Pierpont Morgan, murderer Harry Kendall Thaw, and Harry Houdini, to name four).  At first the chapters seem disjointed from the overall narrative, giving you information about people whose relevance to the overall story is impossible to determine; but as the tale progresses, all of these unlikely characters, from different strata of society, are woven together into a seamless pattern.

Still, I'm not sure I actually liked Ragtime.  Doctorow does a superior job of creating a narrative around the odd links between people from different walks of life -- but he doesn't do a very good job of making us like any of them.  Father is a self-centered narcissist, taking off to go on crazy adventures to get away from his family and responsibilities; Mother repressed, unhappy, and resigned to her life in a pitiful sort of way; Mother's Younger Brother a pre-World-War-I Rebel Without A Cause.  Coalhouse Walker, who (I think) we're supposed to sympathize with, is never developed enough that I particularly cared what happened to him.  All of the other characters are mere names.

The story was interesting enough to keep me reading, and the narrative had enough action in the last hundred pages to push the plot forward.  But the flat characterization and Doctorow's affected, self-conscious writing style detracted enough that I was left at the end feeling kind of cheated.  I don't think it would have taken much to flesh out the characters enough to draw the reader in; as it is, it felt very much like watching one of the stilted, black-and-white silent films from the very era Doctorow was writing about.

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