Perhaps no contemporary writer has more singlemindedly mined a single vein of literary ore than E.L. Doctorow has New York City, especially the New York of the past. For nearly thirty years, from The Book of Daniel through Ragtime, Loon Lake, World’s Fair and Billy Bathgate to The Waterworks, he has time-traveled on the IRT of his mind, bringing Gilded Age, Prohibition, prewar and cold war gangsters, politicians, plutocrats and revolutionaries to life with verbal dexterity and a passion for social justice. He has done this so frequently and expertly that it’s hard to imagine a different kind of book emerging from him, but that’s exactly what he delivers this season. Doctorow courageously risks turning his substantial audience’s expectations upside down with his most vital–and most difficult–work yet, the utterly unexpected City of God.
First off, instead of looking backward, Doctorow could not be more up to the minute as he presents eschatological mania in present-day Manhattan. His books have always echoed emotional truths that readers recognize from their own lives; but now, when his characters need to travel they take jets instead of quaint locomotives, and their communications are delivered via e-mail rather than by horse-drawn carriage. More than merely a substitution of surface detail, the change of external time affects the internal timing of the novel. Doctorow’s often stately tempo revs into warp speed, and it warps his style accordingly.
Instead of the clear and compelling narrative for which he is known, Doctorow’s storyline is buried in a languageslide of astrological speculations, ornithological observations, poems about air battles, pop songs, riffs on the movie business and personal narratives that appear to come from everyone from Einstein to Wittgenstein to Sinatra.
Yet despite the modernity of its style and substance, City of God also peers into the distant past, way beyond Doctorow’s familiar sepia-toned haunts, into a much earlier mode of thought: theology.
The book begins when an eight-foot brass cross is stolen from St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in the East Village. The cross bizarrely reappears uptown, on the roof of a brownstone that houses the seriously intentioned but fuzzy-minded Synagogue of Evolutionary Judaism. Someone has committed a dual crime–or is it a dual heresy?–stealing from the church and setting up the synagogue to take the fall.
Enter Father Thomas Pemberton, God-doubting rector of St. Timothy’s. Pemberton has been a seeker since the sixties, and he landed in his daily diminishing parish after stints at Yale and in the Peace Corps (with a blueblood wife) and on Park Avenue. Now, intuiting a sign that may change his life, a perhaps literal deus ex machina, he sets off on the trail of the cross as the “Divinity Detective.” In this role he meets Joshua Gruen and Sarah Blumenthal, married rabbis attempting to establish their own fledgling congregation, shockingly defiled by the cross. Pemberton also encounters Everett, an elusive writer with “a weakness for the profane mysteries” who has apparently read about the theft and sought him out. It is Everett’s notes toward a novel based on Pemberton that connect the scenes and produce the novel that we are reading.
In the course of the novel, Joshua Gruen dies in search of hidden archives from the Kovno ghetto, which he has learned about from his wife’s father, who survived the ghetto’s liquidation. Pemberton falls in love with the bereaved Sarah, while Everett pursues his own quest to grasp an ungraspable tale.
Obviously, City of God does not develop as a traditional mystery with a traditional resolution. We never do find out who stole the cross, because that’s beside the point. Resolution of the crime eludes Pemberton, as his novel eludes Everett, as perhaps wisdom eludes all of us, as, to be straight, comprehension of City of God may elude many readers. Irresolution, however, is precisely the point. City of God and its characters are adrift in theological flux, and the apparent formlessness of the book paradoxically reveals its structure. Diffuse, diverse, tangential, Doctorow’s book is actually more like life than fiction, which usually satisfies by imposing meaning on the meaningless. For all I know, much of it may be the stuff of Doctorow’s attic, tossed into this extravagant hopper, because, well, why not?