Wednesday, October 06, 2004

New (To Me) Author

It's always exciting and a little scary, to try an author I haven't read before even if that author seems to be well thought of. But to everything there is a season, or so the saying goes, and I thought it about time that I give E.L. Doctorow a try. His novel The Waterworks was published in 1994. The story takes place in 1871 New York City. The narrator is McIlvaine, the editor of a newspaper. The action revolves around the sudden disappearance of Martin Pemberton, a young freelance writer who sometimes writes reviews for McIlvaine. McIlvaine takes it upon himself to find out what happened to Pemberton. In his search we are taken around the growing and bustling city of rich and poor, corrupt and incorruptible, insane and all too sane. Doctorow, it turns out, is a fabulous writer. His descriptions are interesting and insightful and fresh. Here is an example:

He had light gray eyes which spasmodically widened from the slightest stimulus. His eyebrows would arch and then contract to a frown, and he would seem for a moment to be looking not at the world but into it. He suffered an intensity of awareness--seeming to live at some level beyond you that you felt your own self fading in his presence, you felt your hollowness or fraudulence as a person.
He also has some interesting observations about newspapers:
We did not feel it so necessary to assume an objective tone in our reporting then. We were more honest and straightforward and did not make such a sanctimonious thing of objectivity, which is finally a way of constructing an opinion for the reader without letting him know that you are.
There is also an interesting connection made between madness and storytelling:
If I were crazy, wouldn't I want something? It seems to me madness is a kind of importuning, a clutching at the sleeve. I seriously question the value of this account to my madness, if it is that, since I require nothing of anyone who will hear it. I need nothing and ask nothing. My only only that I've given myself so completely to the narrative that very little of my life is left for whatever else I might intend for it...and that--it's really an uncanny feeling--when the story ends, I will end.
When I first began the book I was a little put off by the hard edge to the writing and the clipped news reporting tone. I was also put off by the early rhapsodizing about New York City. Around page 100 I managed to settle in and really begin to enjoy the book. Towards the end I didn't want to put it down. Since this is the first Doctorow book I've read I don't know if he likes to much in his other books as he does in this one. When I got used to the way he used them--for pause, for effect for emphasis--they became quite enjoyable. Here is an example of ellipses at work:
And while she spoke to all of us in her calm alto, it was clear from her glances...or in some of the hesitations of their conversation with each other...Well, what shall we call this common thing?--that aliveness to another person that comes unbidden, unsought, and is composed of the idea of a future? For if you think about it, we live mostly by habit...waiting...sustained by temporary pleasures...or curiosity...or diffuse hopeless energies...including malice...but not by that sustaining idea of a future that only comes humming in the secret aliveness that everyone can see except the two...idiotic...starers.
I dub Doctorow the master of ellipses. The final assessment then, is that The Waterworks is a good read, and Doctorow is an author I will definitely be reading more of.