City of God by E.L. Doctorow

By A. G. Moore

Plaque for Vilna Ghetto, in which at least 40,000 Jews were confined by the Nazis in WWII. Virtually all the residents of the Vilna Ghetto died or were transported to concentration camps.  The Ghetto plays a significant role in Doctorow’s City of God

I start this review by saying that it is a privilege to spend time in the mind of E.L. Doctorow.  The man is brilliant, not in the way of Faulkner – Faulkner is the greater artist – but in a more expanded, hybrid fashion, one that straddles and masters literary, philosophic and technical universes.  However, it is my suspicion, after reading City of God, that Doctorow is weary of the novel and impatient with the reader who expects a cohesive narrative structure.

Of course, every author has the right to make free with literary convention, because convention is an artificial construct.  In the case of the novel, this is a relatively new construct; most scholars consider Don Quijote (1605), by Miguel de Cervantes, to be the first modern novel.  And even the demarcation between “modern novel” and narrative forms that came before is arbitrary.  The tradition of spinning a tale, whether in verse or prose, obviously dates back to ancient times. With City of God Doctorow merely exercises his prerogative to create a work of fiction that is not restricted by antecedents.

Apparently, Doctorow believes his prerogative includes crafting a book that is distractingly disjointed.  Whole chapters of City of God are devoted to the exegesis of contemporary song lyrics.  Other sections are dedicated to expositions on Wittgenstein and Einstein.  There is the slimmest pretext of a plot – the symbolic theft of a cross and its placement on the roof of a synagogue. More substantial and relevant to the various threads of this “novel” is the shadow of the Holocaust, which resonates, dirgelike, as an insistent and unanswerable challenge to faith.  If I had to summarize the narrative thrust of the book, I would say it was this: the various digressions, diversions and fragments that comprise the whole are a meditation on the nature of existence and the possibility of God.

Although I am perfectly willing to cede to Doctorow the liberty of expressing his thoughts in just about any form and still call his product a novel, I don’t think this liberty served him well in this book.  It seemed, as I read, that he was motivated by the need to produce something, but his approach was so roundabout that he never quite achieved his goal.

So, bottom line, if you are inclined to spend some time exploring the philosophical peregrinations of an extraordinary intellect – then read City of God.  Do it as an exercise, if nothing else.  But if you want to read a really good novel, I suggest you move on to another work that more successfully represents Doctorow’s writerly talents: Ragtime.

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