Monday, January 17, 2011

The City

As I promised/threatened, I finally read a book by E. L. Doctorow. I can confirm that it bears little or no resemblance to the book I read by Cory Doctorow.

I picked up "City of God" because it sounded vaguely familiar; after I started, I realized that's probably because I was confusing it with a Werner Herzog movie. I don't have any regrets, though. It's a bit of a difficult read (especially compared to a Cory Doctorow book), but very rewarding.


City of God weaves together a whole bunch of different threads, most of them narrative plots and some not. Most of them focus on two locations: New York City in the present, and Europe during the Holocaust. The people in the present are living very much under the shadow of the past, and if there's a single theme to the book, it's the idea that we as a species still haven't come to grips with what happened there.

Four major characters share the scene in the present, and they are thrown together by a bizarre crime. Father Pemberton is an Anglican priest; he's a very likeable figure, a devoted leader in the Church who has fallen out of favor due to his adherence to the ideas of the 1960's. At the start of the book, he preaches to a congregation that numbers in the single digits; this is highly demoralizing, but he presses on, throwing himself into doing God's work by running a soup kitchen and ministering to his tiny flock. He lives in a marginal neighborhood, and one night someone steals the cross from his chapel. Declaring himself the Theological Detective, he tries to track it down. The second character, who acts as a narrator for much of the main action, is a writer who is interested in this story and curious to see its resolution. The writer is secular, but well-educated in religion, and can hold his own in conversations with Father Pem.

The cross eventually turns up, on the roof of a synagogue across town. The synagogue is led by the third and fourth major characters, Rabbis Joshua and Sarah Gruen. They call their sect Evolutionary Judaism; I think that may have been invented for this book (as far as I can tell their temple is the only one), but it's described as an offshoot from Reconstructionism, which in turn came from Reform Judaism. Even though the Gruens and Pem belong to different faiths, they find that they share a similar trajectory: both think that traditional religion cannot adequately account for modern life, and needs to change. Father Pem has long been obsessed with the Holocaust; his greatest clashes with church authority have dealt with his belief that the Christian Church has never properly atoned for its sins of omission in allowing the Holocaust to happen, and that a multi-generational penance will be necessary to restore Christianity to its purpose. Joshua Gruen's family was killed in the Holocaust; he doesn't presume to say what Christians should do about it, but he and Sarah believe that peoples' hearts need to fundamentally change to keep something like it from happening again.

We next get several long, descriptive, interesting, exciting, and disturbing flashbacks to life in the ghetto during World War II. We learn about the tyranny of everyday life, the brutality and evil of the Nazi soldiers who oversaw the confinement and extermination of the Jews, and so on. We later learn that what we've read is actually a fictional embellishment written by the writer character; he's taken notes from his conversations with Joshua and turned them into a story. We even get to hear Sarah's criticism of this work, as she notes that certain characters aren't portrayed accurately or that some of the chronology is off. Still, she allows, the writer managed to capture what was most important, the essence of that time.

The second half of the book changes into a quest of sorts, to find a cache of documents in Poland that will help identify Nazi concentration camp administrators who are hiding in the United States.

Throughout all this, there's a lot of other stuff going on that contributes thematically to the book but doesn't directly contribute to the main plot.

First, there are regular musical interludes, introduced under the heading "The Midrash Jazz Quartet Plays the Standards." These are songs that start off as, well, standard pop hits of the 40's and 50's. After the first few verses and refrains, the singers will... embellish them. Sometimes they dig deeper into the concept of love; often they focus on particular horrors. I think my favorite part of this is when the audience reactions are shown in italics; these include things like "Loud applause," "Puzzled silence," and "Angry muttering".

There's an extended fantasy that takes place over many segments early in the book. I was never too clear on who was doing the fantasizing; it might have been the writer character, or maybe someone else. It starts off with him noticing an attractive wife at a cocktail party; he imagines starting an affair with her, and then plunges on into deeper, more disturbing, ultimately horrifying visions of psychologically enslaving her, torturing her husband, and driving to a Grand Guignol climax. He's also obsessed with movies, and imagines first the book and then the film adaptation of this tale. This thread was darkly fascinating, but I'm still not clear on how it ties in with the other elements... perhaps it illuminates the evil impulses within us that we try to suppress, or maybe it's about how modern communication technologies serve to dilute effects and make the horrible seem commonplace.

One of the odder side "stories" is Ludwig Wittgenstein. That's it: just Ludwig Wittgenstein. An early section introduces him in the third person, and after that we get several sections of him in the first person describing his thoughts. So... what does that have to do with anything? While reading it I wasn't sure what it meant, but after finishing the book, I think it may have a kind of deliberate assonance with the other themes of the book. Wittgenstein did for philosophy what Einstein did for physics, throwing out the inherited and misguided edifices of thought and replacing them with new systems that better explain their world. Doctorow seems to be implying that while science and philosophy have undergone revolutions, theology has not, and it needs to do so in order to survive.


As with many books that I read these days, anyone who reads this story for its plot will probably be disappointed. We never learn who stole the cross, and by the book's midpoint everyone stops referring to it. The search for the ghetto documents reaches a sort of satisfying conclusion in an airport customs room, but the book's main villain escapes justice by dying in his sleep.

The characters' personal journeys seem to fare better, at least in part. Father Pem is cast out, seeks to redeem himself through secular work, and finds salvation in Judaism. Sarah works through her grief after her bereavement, picks up Joshua's mantle, and finds her happiness with Pem. The writer, who at times seemed superior to Pem with his jaundiced cynicism, at the end feels faintly adrift, watching enviously at Pem's greater happiness and greater belief. That said, a seemingly triumphant ending (the wedding) is undercut by an extremely dark final half-page, which projects the malice of the past into present-day New York.


All in all, a fascinating book; I can't think of another work by a secular writer that's as interested with theology as this novel. It gets beyond the standard complaints of "Why do bad things happen to good people?" and digs deeply into the relationship between man and God, actions and beliefs, bodies and souls. The subject matter here is very weighty, but somehow avoids ever seeming melodramatic. It carves out a quiet place for contemplation within the raging storm of humanity's sins.

No comments:

Post a Comment