Sunday, November 21, 2010


What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Ragtime (Fawcett, 1974).

I don't remember when it was that I was assigned this book for school, but I've kept it ever since. Was I really a high school senior, and did my fondness for it prompt me to hold onto it for more than twenty years, long after my memories of the details had faded, replaced only by a feeling that "this was good, you liked it, hold onto it" without giving me specifics?

E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime is a really difficult novel to love; it details very passionate events in a deeply dispassionate way. There are no quotations in the book, just general recounting of dialogue. Some of the central characters are not even named. It's a sprawling novel set over several years in the early 20th century, and sees three families' lives intertwine and brush against the era's major celebrities, including J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman and Harry Houdini.

Doctorow's narration is really odd, and quite dry. It's an unusual choice, but very effective. There are points in the story where high-melodrama events play out breathlessly, but the narrator gives them no emotional heft whatsoever. He consciously chose to not let a voice interfere with the story. It works very well in places, but in the shorter sections, including one where Sigmund Freud tours America, the narrator doesn't linger on his characters long enough for the events to have impact.

In the longer sections, however, particularly when a nameless, well-to-do family finds themselves caught in a jazz pianist's quite justifiable war with a firehouse captain and the bigoted system that shields him, the story is completely captivating, and it's fascinating watching all the loose threads from the book's first 150 or so pages start tying together. Probably for older readers - it's not that the sex scene is very tawdry, but it ends awfully skeevy - but I'd recommend it. I wonder if I'll keep my copy another twenty years?

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