Goodness me, Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat (so they tell me) and the year is drawing to an end. There are presents to buy and cards to write and I don’t now what else – and on top of it all I’ve not been keeping up with my blog! So, as time is short (or rather, as my To-Do list is long), I am going to try a little experiment with this entry: a review (somewhat) in the style of the novel I am reviewing.

That was the style, that was the way people lived. Women were stouter then. They visited the fleet carrying white parasols. Everyone wore white in summer.

Having said that, before I begin in earnest, it’s probably only fair to provide a wee paragraph of introduction. So, the novel in question is Ragtime, by the author E. L. Doctorow, and it is an extraordinarily broad, sprawling tale containing many characters, some historic (such as Harry Houdini, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Sigmund Freud, etc.) and some fictional; with most of the action taking place around New York in the years leading up to the First World War. Anyway, that’s probably more than enough by way of a introduction.

Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow

So here goes…

Life (at least according to this novel) is like one big tapestry. Sure, some of the threads get a little untangled here and there, others cause the stubbornest of knots, but if you can but trace them through and through you may well find that each one – and by this I really mean each person – interconnects in some way with most others sooner or later. Take Tateh, for example, he started out as a poor, nay, a wretched lonely Jewish man, with not a dime to his name and a small daughter to bring up; totally alienated from the strange land he found himself in and thoroughly down on his luck; and yet if you fast forward a year or two, this same man is a leading light in the burgeoning film industry and an established member of America’s nouveaux riche. It’s America, you see, where anything is not only possible, but indeed, quite probable.

Sure, for every Tateh there is a Sarah or a Coalhouse Walker, whose lives lead less prosperous courses. Sure, every Joe may sometimes think himself all alone, but beyond the noise of his particular joy or pain or excitement or sorrow there murmours somewhere quiet in the background (if you but have the ears to hear it) the steady, swaying persistent beat of the eternal ragtime tune. I know, I know: at this point someone will say, Hey, Buster, you cannot deny that there is still rich and there is still poor; there is still black and there is still white; there is still young and there is still old, but to this I will answer: Ah, but these things are not really Rich. And Poor. No, no; they are Rich-and-Poor; they are Black-and-White, they are Young-and-Old; it is the beautiful and rich socialite Evelyn Nesbit devoting herself to Tateh’s Little Girl, who in turn may – who knows? – devote herself to Father’s unnamed son.

And so it goes on; all so much hustle and bustle, noise and smoke. Yet you just step back a pace or two and you will find that all this – from Houdini’s stage antics to Father’s flags and fireworks – all this is really, in short, part of the bigger mosaic that is life; that is existence; that is America.

This really is a book of far-reaching topics, peoples and emotions. One thing I enjoyed amidst it all was the subtle, often ironic, humour often present. Here is a passing comment about the famous Freud’s visit to America around this time:

The dignified visitors rode the shoot-the-chutes and Freud and Jung took a boat together through the Tunnel of Love. The day came to a close only when Freud tired and had one of the fainting fits that had lately plagued him when in Jung’s presence.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: On the Road, The Dharma Bums or Maggie Cassidy – all good novels by Jack Kerouac.

Advertisements