Stations of the Cross
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?
Doctorow hints at this in several places. As if describing either the book he is writing or the book he inhabits, Everett, the author's stand-in, says, "As a writer, I am only fascinated by the power of this hodgepodge of chronicles, verses, songs, relationships, laws of the universe, sins, and days of reckoning...terse, inconsistent, defiant of common sense, and cryptically inattentive to the ordinary demands of narrative."
Everett also reveals his or his creator's anxiety about his endeavor by speculating, "If it is true that a sociopath can never show restraint but must go on and on in ever greater amplification of his evil until he is destroyed, so must an author honor the character of his idea and allow it to express itself in all its wretched insufficiency until it too reaches its miserable end."
Doctorow has the conviction to honor--and the brilliance to disprove--his own implied insufficiency in City of God, which bursts apart like certain cosmic phenomena or a scattered flock of the birds that Everett admires.
Though different from Doctorow's earlier work, this novel does evidence connections to the previous ones in several respects. The Book of Daniel, based on the secular martyrdom of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, establishes some of the religious concerns that animate City of God, while Loon Lake breaks narrative rules by introducing poetry and oddly interpolated character digests. This leads one to think that Doctorow has been aiming in this direction all along, and never more so than in his last novel, The Waterworks. In fact, City of God reads like a gnostic Kabbalistic commentary to The Waterworks' straight biblical text. Both books have a character named Pemberton, and both books' plots are set in motion by a journalist. Likewise, both use a theological vocabulary, obvious and necessary for City of God, but notable in The Waterworks' tale of ill-gotten wealth and scientific hubris. For example, the reservoir at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue (which later gave way to the New York Public Library) that serves as the eponymous metaphor for the book is described as a "baptismal font for the gigantic absolution we require as a people." Finally, ten pages before the end of The Waterworks, the phrase "city of God" appears in passing, ready to spring forth and command its own volume.
But the stakes in City of God are greater if more ambiguous than those in the more accessible Waterworks, and that's why its shape-shifting succeeds. Because of the impalpable God at the center that no one sees but everyone reads according to his or her need and ability, it is willfully inchoate, simultaneously more artful and more true to the fragmented nature of life.
Doctorow is not alone in his theological interest. Over the last few years, more than a few writers whose previous works were set in a predominantly secular frame have turned to religion as a subject of literary inquiry. Think of Norman Mailer's The Gospel According to the Son or Robert Stone's Damascus Gate. Even Russell Banks's Cloudsplitter shows abolitionist John Brown as the hammer of his own self-defined God. It's not that these writers are saying that something is out there and we don't know what it is, but.... maybe. Or maybe the theological novel is the most interesting form of our time.
Without linear plot or unified voice, City of God is tessellated, a mosaic touching on love and loneliness, faith and physics. It glints and glimmers, reflecting off rather than building upon itself, and adding up to a sum greater than its multifarious parts.
Yet a building requires some mortar and a book needs some glue, and what finally binds everything in Doctorow's novel is the one thing that, despite its dramatic structural difference from his earlier works, literally, geographically, connects it to them: New York, the endlessly splendiferous Apple. No city mythologizes itself like New York, and Doctorow sings Gotham's song as exuberantly as Whitman did. His novel is a melting pot in which he replicates the city's vertiginous vernaculars, high and low. The voices that unveil the strange plot may be his subject as much as any plot itself. Doctorow loves New York's clergy and laity, immigrants and hucksters. He loves the pigeons and the taxi cabs, the wreck and the ruin, the power and the glory. For all its "watery precincts of urban nihilism," New York "depends on the human need to walk among strangers." Urban connection makes up for urban nihilism, and eventually Doctorow's characters figure that out. In their fruitless search for God they find humanity, humanity defined by its search for deity, which makes the city they shape by their ambition and despair into its own superior being.
Augustine, whose title Doctorow borrows, knew and suffered and ultimately disdained the flesh, and took refuge in his dubious celestial vision, whereas Doctorow, in search of the celestial, finally finds solace in the here and now.