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E.L. Doctorow's "City of God"

By David Valdes Greenwood

MARCH 20, 2000: 

City of God by E.L. Doctorow (Random House), 272 pages, $25.

In naming his new religious opus City of God, E.L. Doctorow has performed a nifty sleight-of-hand, misdirecting the eyes of more theologically minded readers toward St. Augustine's masterwork of the same title. Perhaps the most influential document of the early Christian church, Augustine's City of God combines philosophy, history, and scriptural exegesis in a lengthy inquiry into spiritual struggle. And its namesake attempts to do the same. But the real models here are the collected texts that make up the entire Judaeo-Christian tradition -- never one to work on a small canvas, Doctorow has now written his own Bible.

He has done so quite thoroughly: he opens the novel with a witty Genesis-like riff, describing the Big Bang as "gas and matter and darkness-light, a cosmic floop of nothing." And he closes the work with a marriage supper -- the final metaphor of the Book of Revelation. In between, readers must work through assorted and occasionally opposing narrative voices, mythopoetic histories, and theological argumentation. The Bible, as a composition, was cobbled together over time and by committee; Doctorow seems to mimic the effect of such a process too well, and with the same rewards. Parts of the novel are transcendent and inspired; others feel rote, even suspect.

Insofar as there is a plot, it concerns the spiritual journey of Father Pemberton, or "Pem," a Episcopal priest. (New York City is the ostensible setting, but its presence fades as the novel unfolds.) For the early part of the book, Pem is our most reliable narrator (though Ludwig Wittgenstein and Albert Einstein also get their moments), and we believe that we are being drawn with Pem into an ecclesiastical mystery of sorts. But then Pem becomes a mere character rendered by a new narrator, an author writing a spiritual novel. Having used the first-person present tense for both the constructed past and the presumably accurate present (the same device that allows New Testament authors to comment on Old Testament predecessors), Doctorow unsettles the reader, calling into question the trustworthiness of each perspective and alienating us from any single speaker. It is likely that these effects are intentional. One of the novel's main points is that religious documents remain relevant only through re-examination; as a female rabbi says, "The great civilizer on earth seems to have been doubt."

With a straight face, Doctorow applies that same deconstructive approach to jazz and pop standards from the 1920s and '30s. Songs like "Me and My Shadow" are presented by the "Midrash Jazz Quartet," Midrash being a method by which Jewish scholars explicated texts. In these passages, Doctorow extrapolates profound cultural and personal experiences from simple lyrics ("when it's twelve o'clock we climb the stair" becomes the end of time and the singer's fear that perhaps there is no Heaven after all). Like the Psalms, these passages do not advance the plot or illumine a single character but rather add a lyrical quality that renders the human condition in musical terms. If they were as brief as the Psalms, they might seem more tolerable and less like indulgent asides.

The Midrash conceit is but one of a half-dozen devices that operate outside Pem's story. There are imagined movie sequences, revenge fantasies, a Holocaust memoir, verse histories, and ongoing nature metaphors. All are connected by implied or overt spiritual commentary, which makes the work texturally richer, if not altogether emotionally engaging. The problem here is shared by a lot of postmodern fiction: the technical devices within texts tend to be coolly impressive as individual elements but not innately satisfying taken as a whole. Doctorow is writing beautifully here, with a dazzling command of theological argumentation. But he is also capricious, introducing entire plots only to abandon them without comment while forcing liberal religious theory into the mouths of characters with such universal eloquence as to render their voices indistinguishable. It's as if he had consciously decided that he cannot expend energy on the niceties of plot and character when there are so many big ideas to chew on.

Pem, the mouthpiece for those ideas, notes that even the most progressive theologians seem to end up reaffirming the faith they started with. In a secular literary sense, that is the case here. Despite its title, it's clear early on that Doctorow's sympathies will ever lie with the inhabitants of the City of Earth. When all is said and done, this Bible of spiritual humanism requires hard work of the reader only to reward that effort with the most obvious conclusion, and what joys are available are those incidents found along the way.

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