Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Ragtime - E.L. Doctorow
This book had a lot of sex in it. Let me just start with that. The sex was not explicit, but more incidental. Aside from the sex, there were several... strange situations. A woman gives a young girl a sponge bath, for instance. These were all strange, unsettling scenes. They were not pleasant scenes. I didn't enjoy them. I am of the same school as many others here, that sex is an overused sales tactic, more than anything else (not that these sex scenes will pull in the classy-porn audience so much...).
What was different about this book, was that I thought the other really believed the sex. He really thought it belonged there, and he really wanted me to see it, for his own purposes. That sort of sums up this book for me. So much of what frustrates me in modern literature was there: that deep desire for a hero and a villain, combined with a self-aware coolness towards anyone who approaches either extreme. If something is ugly in this book, Doctorow refuses to just leave it ugly - he must find a way to show us that it isn't that simple. And vice-versa. Booker T. Washington must be shown as a bit pompous and self-important. The man who whips his wife with a razor strop must be shown to be pitiable. Normally this just frustrates me - not because it isn't true, but because it isn't WRITTEN true. Literature is so often just the work of phonies congratulating themselves on being so damned smart (I have a natural tendency to hate this because I've caught myself doing it in my life). I don't imagine the current day is unique for this, but I'm IN the current day - maybe it's just because I'm more experienced with present day variety of snobbery. IT's difficult to read a book like this and not think the author is someone I'd rather not have dinner with.
But, the difference is, I felt like Doctorow really believed it. I don't think this book will make me be a different person, but it made me think I could respect this kind of writing. I felt the same way I feel when I speak to a Libertarian who is willing to stop ranting and start talking - like I deeply disagree with what they are saying, but like I wish I could meet more people like them. It helps, as well, that there are some powerful ideas that I DID agree with him on, and that he talked about some of my favorite topics (Emma Goldman, for instance, and Muckrackers). I am glad I read this book, and will probably never read it again.