NBAW, 36: 1985’s World’s Fair, by E.L. Doctorow.

5 Mar

1.

In 1985, E.L. Doctorow won the National Book Award for his novel of coming of age in 1930s New York, World’s Fair.

World’s Fair follows a grown man revisiting, and at times re-interpreting, his childhood memories of growing up Jewish in the Bronx. As a coming of age novel, it’s very fine, evocative and detailed, capturing the emotional instability of childhood.

The writing is solid and professional. The sentences hold together. And if there isn’t that white-hot electricity of some of his peers, there are no stinkers either. The novel feels exactly like what it is: a professional work by a professional writer.

Here we have the narrator describing the wild boys of his neighborhood:

These were the boys who hated boundaries and straight lines, who traveled as a matter of principle off the streets, as if they needed to trespass and show their scorn of property. They wore felt hats with the brims cut away and the crown folded back along the edge and trimmed in a triangle pattern. They wore undershirts for shirts and high-top sneakers without socks. They carried cigarettes behind their ears. Slingshots stuck out of their back pockets. They were the same boys who rode the backs of trolley cars by standing on the slimmest of fenders and holding on to the window frames with their fingertips. They wrestled sewer covers off their sears and climbed down in the muck to find things. They were the ones, I knew, who chalked the strange marks on our garage doors.

 

And just a bit later,

“It’s bad,” Donald told me. “Whenever you see one of these, make sure to erase it. Use your shoe sole, spit on it, rub it with dirt, do anything. It’s a swastika.”

 

Doctorow is Jewish, and his characters are Jewish, and there’s a low-level rumbling of anti-Semitism throughout the novel.

But the currents of racism, sexism, the dark shadows stalking pre-war America, they don’t result in anything in the novel, not really. The brief description of the story, man revisits memories of his childhood in the Bronx, that is an exact encapsulation of the novel.

Doctorow is very fine in capturing the demonic power—I’ve heard it called the occult superstructure—of childhood. You can see the narrator’s mythology of his childhood resting side by side the hard realities. It’s a neat trick, but once you see it, the novel sort of peters out. There isn’t much mystery. The funny bits are humorous but light. And there aren’t many stories in the book, more vignettes and little cast-away scenes. The whole novel feels light and slight and thin and airy. It feels like a YA novel, really, a la The Catcher in the Rye, only missing the jittery unreliability of Salinger’s often-misunderstood novel of the eccentric rich in New York.

The result is an odd novel, intriguing in a way but dissatisfying. Doctorow doesn’t want to invent any kind of narrative with characters growing or changing—his other novels don’t really work this way, either—but his novel is one-note, his objectives easy to digest and decipher. So it’s good writing with a slender comedic glow, but little else.

Here’s another great piece of evocative writing:

To walk out of a brisk autumn day into a Klein’s fall sale was an unimaginably perverse act even for an adult. Greeted by blasts of hot air whooshing up through the floor grates between the outer and inner doors, we passed into a harshly lit wasteland of pipe racks and dump bins hung and piled with every conceivable kind of garment for every gender, age and shape, from infants and toddlers to boys, young misses, juniors, men and women. And every single one of these garments seemed to be undergoing the imperial scrutiny of the released population of an insane asylum. Some sort of frenzied mass rite was taking place, the Flinging of the Textiles. As if in a state of hypnosis, my mother immediately joined in while I held on to her, for my life. Wriggling and elbowing her way through communicants three and four deep around a counter of sweaters, say, or scarves, she immediately began tossing them up in the air, just as everyone else was, altogether creating a kind of fountain of rising and falling colors.

Fine writing, but my beef with Doctorow in this novel is his inability to connect the very fine passages of writing to any kind of sinew or bone; the story feels like clouds, or pleasing mist. It’s all one-note—rapturous writing but dull storytelling. The characters aren’t driven, there’s no madness, the novel is trying to be realistic but comes off as not dully exactly, but quotidian. And not in a good way. It’s a thinner version of Auggie March, only Bellow has so many stories and vignettes and characters little Auggie gets a bit lost in the shuffle.

Fun to read but futile.

Fun to read, but futile.

 

2.

I was going to give an overview of coming of age novels, or New York novels, or overrated novels, or autobiographical novels, or even trends in fiction in the mid-1980s, but I’m consumed with various writing projects at the moment, so, instead, please fill in your own opinionated history of any of the above categories and run with it in your imagination. Just give me credit in your memories. That’s the ultimate goal: I should remain in your thoughts like an oily dream.

3.

Doctorow’s novel should not have won the top award; it beat out some smashing novels.

Cormac McCarthy published his magnum opus, Blood Meridian, a novel I try to re-read every other year. Larry McMurtry released his (generally believed to be) best novel, Lonesome Dove. John Irving (for me, overrated) put out his epic story of abortion[1] The Cider-House Rules. Bret Easton Ellis published his first, and by far best, novel, Less Than Zero[2]. Ann Tyler released The Accidental Tourist, which won her the National Book Critics Circle Award. And Kurt Vonnegut, James Michener, and Amy Hempel all released novels. An impressive list, made richer over time. How Doctorow won for his pleasant little novel of memories is beyond me. Perhaps Doctorow’s novel of the 1930s, when the left still had teeth and bite, resonated with the judges stuck smack dab in the middle of Reagan’s America? And does anyone, thirty years on, believe that this novel will be remembered but Blood Meridian, The Accidental Tourist, and Lonesome Dove will be forgotten?

Over in science fictionland, two landmark works appeared. Orson Scott Card published his epic, and some argue horribly misguided, novel of militarized children, Ender’s Game. And Carl Sagan released his first contact story, Contact.

Around the world, Thomas Bernhard and Anthony Burgess published novels, as did Carlos Fuentes, Naguib Mahfouz and Orhan Pamuk.

[1] A bad joke. Sue me.

[2] This was an enormously polarizing novel in his day, and a much better novel than the rest of Ellis’s uneven–I’m being generous—work.

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One Response to “NBAW, 36: 1985’s World’s Fair, by E.L. Doctorow.”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. NBAW, 39: 1982’s So Long and See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell. | simoneandthesilversurfer - August 31, 2015

    […] The award was for best paperback edition. Maxwell beat four other very fine stylists: Shirley Hazzard, Walker Percy, Anne Tyler, and E.L. Doctorow. […]

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