Wednesday, 11 July 2001

E.L. Doctorow: City of God (2000)

Edition: Little, Brown & Co, 2000
Review number: 866

Doctorow's most recent novel manages to be both intensely baffling and immensely satisfying. Fragmentary and ironic, it is hard to say what it is about, beyond its major theme of Jewishness in New York. The two main characters are the Episcopalian rector of rundown St Timothy's in Manhattan and the rabbi of a progressive synagoge on the East side; they meet when the cross disappears from the church altar and is found on the synagogue roof.

This symbolic act of vandalism is quickly forgotten, which is a pity, in a whole range of other strands - the story of a small boy in a Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, short essays on quantum mechanics, eavesdropping on the thoughts of Wittgenstein, and commentaries on pppular song in the style of the Midrash, a wonderful idea. As the novel proceeds, Doctorow himself becomes more and more present, as we get, instead of a standard narrative, reports of meetings between him and the characters, as though he were a journalist trying to put together a factual story rather than a novelist.

In places City of God is extremely intellectual, but it has character at its heart; the growing relationship between rector and rabbi is the centre of the novel, keeping everything else in perspective so that the reader is only occasionally confused. Every section of City of God is extremely well written; while by no stretch of the imagination as accessible as Doctorow's earlier novels, it is fascinating to read.

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