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?
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.