Reading and re-reading pleasures

Ragtime: A Novel by E.L. Doctorow. Random House. 336 pages.

I read Ragtime more than thirty years ago when it first appeared, and was impressed Ragtimeby its prose—which seemed like nothing I’d ever read and which was rumored to be in ragtime rhythm—and was gripped by its story. What strikes me now, having just reread it, is the spare beauty of its language and its narrative audacity. So, much the same. The bestseller still delights and amazes me. I’m more conscious now of its technique and effects and yet almost as clueless about its means of achieving them. I’m in the midst of yet another rereading to examine solely the sources of the novel’s narrative drive.

One of the reasons for rereading is that we don’t step in the same river twice, at least not as the same person. We change and so does the book. Plus some books are time capsules: I cannot think of The World According to Garp without remembering reading it nonstop during a 105-degree Fourth of July weekend in New York City in 1978 (at some of his plot-driven passages I begged Pause. Linger. Let another sentence—or two—extend the moment!), lying under an air conditioner at 113th and Broadway. A more proximate reason for revisiting Ragtime is that I’m interested in historical novels and wanted to see how E.L. Doctorow constructed one of the most celebrated examples. And also there’s the hope in middle age of re-experiencing the joy I knew as a teenager of seeing a theme or motif or idea as it reappeared. I’d laugh or feel an almost physical delight.

At least I think that’s why I experienced mind orgasms. The heck of it is that we forget, not necessarily how we felt but what caused us to feel a certain way. I can remember feeling that specific pleasure—it was rare and thrilling—when I saw an author doing it, and I think that the thing being done was simply his rewarding me for knowledge he’d given me much earlier. But I’m not sure.

I can’t recall whether Ragtime had such a moment. But it had—and has—the strangeness of true art. I didn’t know what to think of it as a twenty year old except that it awed me. The sentences still strike me: their short declarative punch; the absence of the serial comma (and few commas altogether) and the omission of the “and” itself in the serial series; the few or no transitional bridges, either of words or of white space; the sparse adverbs; the rolling alliteration. The passage below illustrates many of these attributes:

“Chutes of cheerful morning sun leaned like buttresses from the high dirty windows of the ward. Clustered about the bed of the heroic sandhog was his family—a wife, an old mother in a babushka, two strapping sons. A doctor was in attendance. The man in the bed was swathed in bandages from his head to his feet. His arms, in casts, were supported in traction as was one encased leg. Every few moments there would issue from his head bandages a weak or perhaps only decorous groan.”

The plot concerns an upper-middle-class family whose lives intersect with those of a poor immigrant and his beautiful young daughter and of a sophisticated black musician and his childlike lover. As well, and most famously, Ragtime mixes with those characters real historical figures such as Sigmund Freud, Harry Houdini, Stanford White, J.P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, and Emma Goldman. It depicts an America just after the turn of the last century that was ruthless and racist and yet bursting with innovation and opportunity. One gets a powerful sense, because Doctorow shows it happening, of how the filthy beleaguered immigrant was likely to die from disease or violence but how he also might rise by talent and fluke; and in any case how his children would blend ultimately with those of the bourgeoise.

Unless they were black. And Ragtime explores not only America’s rapaciousness and violence and corn pone giants of commerce but also its great issue, race. A racial incident really gets the book going: the elegant musician is affronted by jealous white toughs who vandalize his automobile. The event exposes the establishment’s uneasy hypocrisy and leads to escalating violence. (Ragtime feels thoroughly original and imaginative, so it’s instructive that Doctorow adapted his book’s central contretemps from an obscure German novel in which a character seeks similar redress for a wrong.)

What propels the novel until the narrative is taken over by the incident—which occurs just over halfway through the book—is its delightful use of real figures like Freud, grouchy and appalled by America’s hurly burly, and the yearning, thin-skinned Houdini. And the book’s base appeal is our growing interest in the ordinary yet remarkable family around which these gaudy figures and the plot pivot. From the first lines of this delicious, brilliant novel we know interesting things are going to happen to these people:

“In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York. It was a three-story brown single with dormers, bay windows and a screened porch. Striped awnings shaded the windows. The family took possession of this stout manse on a sunny day in June and it seemed for some years thereafter that all their days would be warm and fair.”

In an interview with NPR, Doctorow once said, “To write anything any good you have to have the sense of transgression, of breaking some rule.” Now that’s a provocative statement. Yet Ragtime still seems to break rules or at least to shatter expectations concerning language, literary realism, and narrative voice (the nature and identity of the omniscient narrator is itself intriguing). Ragtime holds up thirty-four years after I first read it, and has entered the pantheon as one of my all-time favorite books.

Oh, and this time when I reached Ragtime‘s end, which I’d forgotten, I laughed. It was so surprising, clever and, in terms of what had come before, so utterly perfect.

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