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.

7 comments:

Amanda said...

This review positively turns me off the idea of reading this book. Did I put this on my 5-year plan?? I have go to look...no, it's not. Whew. I have an excuse now. Thanks for warning me.

moonrat said...

Wow, interesting review.

I have it on my list, too, which leads to my next question--

do you (in retrospect) see why this is a "classic"/on lots of "best of" lists? do you think it deserves to be there?

Jason Gignac said...

I slowly and tentatively say yes. It was a very beautiful book, in it's own strange way. I said I felt uncomfortable in the book, and that is true, but I felt uncomfortable for all the right reasons. It's the sort of book that allows to realize the things about yourself that you try to avoid, both as an individual and as a part of the Western World in general.

Anonymous said...

My daughter is just starting to read it for her high school English class. She's already frustrated with some of the aspects you brought up. Any tips to help her get through it? She usually loves reading challenges.

Jason Gignac said...

well... It's a little odd to me that they're reading it I'm high school. Not that a teenager couldn't grok it, just that it would be more comfortable to talk about in a group of peers. I'd say three things :
1) the hardest thing is the sex. in the first chapter there is a quote that basically equates sex with death in the time. It helped me every time there was something sexual to think of what it meant in regards to death. At first it seems pay and overly cerebral, but you eventually begin to see something tonwhat he's saying.
2) learn some history. Learn about immigration, anarchism, race relations, etc, and about some of the real people in the book. Part of the good qualities is that of takes a history that is boxed up and ignored and demystifies it and makes it human.
3) read it quickly - it's an immersive book, and better enjoyed in one heavy sitting

Ymmv. Let us know how of turns out! Give us her review!

Sorry for my typing - entering this on my iPod ;)

Veronica said...

wow your review is so off. thw reason that Doctrow uses sex is to portray the sence of change in an era. If you focused on something other than sex it's quite simple. Did it ever occur to you this was no the normal for them as well? Or that Father in the book is dramatically DEPRESSED because of all the change? I'm in high school and I can grasp the concept of things other than sex. Sorry to be so blunt, but you're dead wrong in pressuming the book is all about sex.

Jason Gignac said...

Veronica - while I see your point, and while I can see what you are saying about father (nor do I THINK I disagreed with that point in my review...), I have to subtly, respectfully disagree with your overall interpretation of the sex inthe book. The sex is not so much an agent of social change, at least not in all the parts of the book, as an inextricable link with the dying era they are living in - this is made pretty explicit, for instance, when Freud comes to visit and Doctorow says (paraphrased), that, in this period, Freud hadn't yet ruined sex for Americans. The book, to me portrays an end to a particular kind of American innocence, a fall from the Garden, if you will, and the sex through most of the book follows the classic sexual interpretation of Adam and Eve, that there sex before the fall was 'innocent' because they didn't understand it. IT was just an animal act. There are exceptions, those who have already moved forward into America's future - Goldman is a great example, or the relationship between Mother and Tata at the end. But ironically, these scenes are NOT the 'sexiest sex' in the book. I believe there is a reason for that.