Saturday, 28 December 2019

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

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What do Harry Houdini, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, J Pierpont Morgan, Sigmund Freud, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit and Emma Goldman have in common? Fans of EL Doctorow’s 1975 masterpiece Ragtime will be jumping up and down with their hands in the air. All of these real historical characters – and a slew of lesser known ones, too – are central characters in this remarkable novel. We are fairly accustomed to novelisations of real characters nowadays – Charles Lindbergh in Philip The Plot Against America, for example, or John Brown in Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter or Fyodor Dostoevsky in JM Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg. And Doctorow, of course, returns to the device in later fiction too, such as his telling of the story of the Collyer Brothers in Homer and Langley, or General Sherman in The March. He had done it before, too, with The Book of Daniel, about the Rosenberg case, more famously immortalised in fiction in the opening line of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. But at the time, Ragtime was innovative. And controversial.

In a later interview, Doctorow noted:

I heard secondhand that the editor of The New Yorker, William Shawn, was very critical of the book, that someone prepared a major review and he said no. I had transgressed in making up words and thoughts that people had never said. Now it happens almost every day. I think that opened the gates.

Ragtime truly is extraordinary in the way it melds real and fictional characters. Moreover, the technique is vital to the thematic thrust of the novel, given that it focuses on the establishment of the American nation and the development of the American psyche: the process of assimilation of millions of immigrants from dozens of countries, particularly throughout the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries was an extraordinary piece of national re-invention. It saw people almost literally become someone else as they threw off the trappings of their old lives and adopted new ones; it saw ordinary people grow to prominence and fame; and it saw famous citizens slide into lives of unutterable fantasy and delusion. America at this time was massively polarised between people playing out different types of ragtime – the ragged poverty of the underclass on one hand and, on the other, the syncopated, life-affirming joyousness lived out by those innocent rich who had no idea what was to unfold in the rest of the century.

Drawing the disparate real-life characters together are three fictional families around whom the novel revolves. Firstly, there is Father, Mother, the Little Boy, Grandfather and Mother’s Younger Brother, a middle-class, well-to-do family making a good living from Father’s fireworks and flag-making business (gunpowder and the sanctity of the flag – what could be more quintessentially American?). Secondly the immigrant family of Mameh, Tateh and The Little Girl, who initially live in abject poverty but (the surviving members, at least) end the novel with unimagined riches. And thirdly the black ragtime musician, Coalhouse Walker Jr., Sarah, a maid whom he makes pregnant, and their illegitimate baby. And so, of course, we have a cross-section of the melting pot that became America. The way these three families come together is clearly connotative of the establishment of this brave new country and we, the readers, are forced to recognise that beneath the veneer of progress terrible hardships and deprivations and cruelties abounded. For Coalhouse, in particular, a victim of terrible racism, the idealism of this young nation is a blighted notion indeed.

Part and parcel of the development of this new America is, of course, industrialisation. The Industrial Revolution may have started in Great Britain but it flourished in twentieth century America. Enter Henry Ford, and the principle of the assembly line. As Ragtime explains: 

From these principles Ford established the final proposition of the theory of industrial manufacture - not only that the parts of the finished product be interchangeable, but that the men who build the products be themselves interchangeable parts.

One can read Ragtime, then, as a critique of modernity and the dehumanising effect of progress and technological advance. The novel ends during the First World War, a calamitous event the immediate (though not the underlying) cause of which was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, another character who makes a cameo appearance in the novel. Indeed, the assassination itself, by Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo in August 1914, is dramatised in the narrative. Given that Modernist sensibilities regularly decried the First World War as proof of the calamitous turn that humanity had taken since the Enlightenment, such a critique of the novel’s thematic intentions might seem apposite.

And yet it is not sufficient, I think to explain the complexity of Ragtime. For all Doctorow’s unblinking gaze on the less salubrious aspects of American nationhood, it does not feel, to me, like a reactionary social critique of hubristic modernity in the way of Eric Voegelin and novelists who advanced his theories, such as Flannery O’Connor. Rather, I would say it is closer in tone to Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm, which likewise did not flinch from portraying the seedier side of life but managed to do so without being either too critical or too sentimental. Doctorow, a beautifully nuanced writer, asserts a similar degree of balance. How does he do it?

Principally, he does it by nature of the narrative itself and, in particular, the three fictional characters who dominate it. The scene is set from the word go. This is the opening:

In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York. It was a three-story brown shingle with dormers, bay windows, and a screened porch. Striped awnings shaded the windows. The family took possession of this stout manse on a sunny day in June and it seemed for some years thereafter that all their days would be warm and fair.

That one word – “seemed” – tells us all we need to know about this edenic scene which is being suggested to us. Although their stories are, initially, separate, the three families begin to coalesce and it is clear that each impacts on the other in manifold ways. The connections of humanity are mysterious things, the community of being is a web we cannot see and do not control. A simplistic reactionary binary of technology/modernity – spirituality/tradition will not suffice here.

The very first chapter of the novel ends with The Little Boy speaking to Harry Houdini and telling him, apropos nothing at all, “Warn the Duke.” This means nothing at this stage, but it becomes clear that this little boy has some form of divinatory powers. Later in the novel, Houdini does indeed meet the Duke – Archduke Franz Ferdinand – but he doesn’t “warn” him and we know the outcome. Those little connections of humanity, those random chances, those coincidences and happy or unhappy occurrences that populate our existence: these are the stuff that matters in our lives. And those writers, like Cormac McCarthy, who suggest that, for all our hubris, our paths are ordained from the very first and we can have no say in our own progress, are simply wrong. Doctorow knows there is much wrong with our modern ways of life, but he is equally certain that the remedy is in our own hands. That is what Ragtime can teach us.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Runner-up in the Raven Short Story Competition

My story, Zoroman's Cave, was runner up in the 2019 Raven Short Story Competition. The judges said of it:

‘Zoroman’s Cave’ is a throwback with the hyper intelligent yet sinister narrator reminiscent of Lovecraft’s high-pulp style narrators. The volume of verbiage and contortion of the narrator’s thoughts can come across as quite dense, high falutin’ even, yet it flowed. It made for a smooth read. For that I thought it should be recognized as a standout and a great nod to the classic weird story genre.

I've been on a decent run recently. Some joy with the novels would be good now...

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Darling Axe First Page Challenge

I'm delighted to have won the Darling Axe First Page Challenge for the opening page of my novel Cloudland. Having seen the stories that came second and third, I can see the standard was very high.

Cloudland by Rob McInroy

Sunday, 21 July 2019

"The Indian Uprising" by Donald Barthelme

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The Indian Uprising is probably the key Barthelme work, and can illuminate his style and use of narrative structure to best effect. It appears, on first reading, almost meaningless. There are dizzying shifts in subject matter, sometimes within a single sentence. It begins: ‘We defended the city as best we could. The arrows of the Comanches came in clouds,’ and yet it is apparent that this is a modern-day city. The opening paragraph concludes with a question to a character called Sylvia: ‘Do you think this is a good life?’ to which she replies: ‘no.’

A Comanche Indian is being tortured but the narrator ‘sits there getting drunker and drunker and more in love and more in love,’ and asks Sylvia: ‘Do you know Fauré’s Dolly?’ So it continues. The story of the uprising is interplayed with the personal life of the narrator. It is impossible to get any grip on the narrative. Time frames are meaningless. Characters glide in and out of the story with no apparent context. Because he ‘knows nothing’ the narrator is put in touch with Miss R, a teacher who juxtaposes insults and tenderness, seems to give him sage advice, seems to be on his side but in the end betrays him and is seen to be one of the Comanches. We discover that ‘Jane’, whom we do not know but assume to be a former lover, has been beaten up by a dwarf. The story continues to shift between the Comanches and the narrator, and at one point adopts the second person: ‘But it is you I want now,’ drawing the readers into a story which so far has resolutely excluded them. If anything, things gets stranger:

‘What is the situation?’ I asked.
‘The situation is liquid,’ he said. ‘We hold the south quarter and they hold the north quarter. The rest is silence.’
‘And Kenneth?’
‘That girl is not in love with Kenneth,’ Block said frankly. ‘She is in love with his coat.’

… Once I caught Kenneth’s coat going down the stairs by itself but the coat was a trap and inside a Comanche who made a thrust with his short, ugly knife at my leg which buckled and tossed me over the balustrade through a window and into another situation.

At this stage, neither Kenneth nor Block have been introduced and we don’t know who ‘that girl’ is. It is my opinion (but only that, there is no definitive answer) that both Kenneth and Block are alter egos of the narrator, and that the girl is Sylvia. He is telling himself that Sylvia doesn’t love him, but is simply using him (his wealth, presumably, in the guise of the coat.)

But this is all conjecture. Does the story actually mean anything or is it a ‘dull and intellectually disingenuous tale,’ as Schneider says? He complains that Barthelme’s apologists are ‘repeatedly stressing it must be understood within contexts that have nothing to do with the work itself.’ This is a narrow argument, one which would deny, for example, the power of 1984 or Gulliver’s Travels or even the parodies of Henry Fielding. The Indian Uprising is classic Barthelme, a collage of moments and episodes cascading on top of one another in a seemingly random fashion. Karl likens its quick cuts to a Godard film, a description with which Barthelme himself concurred, with the additional complication of ‘the introduction of wildly dissimilar material, like commercials.’

However, the story can be deciphered. It’s important to remember when it was written – 1968, the middle of the Vietnam War, with America split and with increasingly vocal anti-war factions asserting themselves. Therefore, it can perhaps be seen as an ironic comment on the way the war, and war in general, was portrayed in the media. Barthelme says: ‘It was in part, obviously, a response to the Vietnam War.’ But he continues: ‘It was in response to certain things that were going on in my personal life at the time, and a whole lot of other things came together in that story.’

In other words – and this is the story’s strength as well as its weakness – it is operating at a global/political level and also at a highly personal one. He is using the same metaphor of the uprising to vent his feelings on Vietnam and to chart the break-up of an affair. In the story, the narrator is an older man having an affair with a young, free spirit, Sylvia. Therefore, Barthelme is conflating love and war.

It goes further than that. Barthelme is also using the Comanche raid as a way of examining the ways in which the left were latching onto ‘primitive’ styles (think of ‘Hanoi Jane’ Fonda, although she wasn’t called that until 1972.) The ghetto is ‘on heroin’ but the authorities ignore it, even complicitly assists. Why? Because the ghetto is where the revolution starts, always, and if they can keep them quiet – through drugs – the status quo can be maintained. Barthelme says of this section:

the heroin is… a political comment on the fact that we allow the heroin traffic in our country to exist… In a way, the heroin traffic is paralleled by the Vietnamese war, so it’s a kind of political comment in the story.

Meanwhile, in the personal strand of the story, the narrator and the much younger Sylvia are having an affair. Right at the start he asks her if she’s enjoying it and she says ‘no.’ Later – it may be the same day, or after a reconciliation – he says: ‘we have many years left to live.’ Her reply, cruel and cutting, is: ‘with luck you may survive until matins.’ Despite this, he still craves her.

He asks Miss R for assistance. She is a schoolmarmish character, alternately abusing him and whispering tender entreaties. She is a complex character, suggesting the agony of uncertainty in the narrator’s mind. Therefore, she may not be real, or Reality, but simply his perception of reality, a shifting, uncertain thing. Miss R likes litany, lists, certainty, the ‘hard, brown, nutlike word.’ The narrator, on the other hand, talks of ‘strings of language extend[ing] in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole.’ They are yin and yang.

The story accelerates to its climax. The Indians overrun the city. They ‘tread into the mouth of the mayor.’ In the same paragraph, the narrator and Sylvia are lying in bed but ‘the sickness of the quarrel lies thick.’ He knows it is over between them. The war has seen terrible things, children have been casualties, mistakes have been made. Miss R orders the narrator to remove his belt and shoelaces. What happens next isn’t clear. Tanner talks of defeat spreading through the city, ‘the enemy is real… threat and coercion come in many forms, from many quarters.’ Most reviewers suggest the narrator is about to be tortured. Perhaps he is, or perhaps, because he is going before the ‘Clemency Committee,’ they are saving him from himself. It is for the reader to decide. Whichever, the narrator looks into their ‘savage black eyes, paint, feathers, beads,’ and the story ends.

In this story we see the principal facets of Barthelme’s writing: firstly, the choppy collage effect, a literary equivalent of a Picasso cubist painting, allowing the viewer to see the reality of the portrait from every angle simultaneously. It is what Karl described as:

that ordered and coherent expression of anarchic materials which, when verbalized, will express a visual, aural, imaged reality. That melange of materials reordered for synesthesiac (sic) purposes is Barthelme’s way of presenting America: a design of our life, in arrangements that recall layouts.

Secondly, we have the fractured, fragmented nature of the text and, in consequence, the human relationships and the world he conjures. We saw that Tanner likened his work to pop art, but that is too shallow a comparison. ‘Can the life of the time be caught in an advertisment?’ Barthelme wrote. Where Warhol put soup cans into art galleries, Barthelme went further and put the detritus of a society into the barricades at the very edge of civilisation. The question – one that Warhol could never imagine asking – is which side of the barricade should he (and we) be on?

Thirdly, and this is greatly overlooked in most analyses of Barthelme, is that, through the undoubted melancholy there is humanist hope in his words. Pynchon suggests:

Barthelme’s was a specifically urban melancholy, related to that look of immunity to joy or even surprise seen in the faces of cab drivers, bartenders, street dealers, city editors, a wearily taken vow to persist beneath the burdens of the day and the terrors of the night.

This was not meant unkindly, (indeed in the same article Pynchon describes Barthelme as having a ‘hopeful and unbitter heart’) but the impression persists that Barthelme’s writing is cold and emotionless. Of course, Barthelme himself often referred to this, for example in an interview with O’Hara when, having been asked what his greatest writing weakness is, he replies: ‘I don’t offer enough emotion.’ That may be the case: certainly, because of mostly non-existent characterisation, it is difficult to get to know or feel involved with many of his creations. And yet, rising above that, there is often a feeling of ambivalent hope in his works. The ending of The Indian Uprising certainly suggests it. So, too, does the resonant ending of another of his stories, Rebecca: ‘One should never cease considering human love, which remains as grisly and golden as ever, no matter what is tattooed upon the warm, tympanic page.’

That is classic Barthelme. It feels like a truism, but at the last moment he manages to subvert it into something more strange and more lovely. There is an aura of hopeful melancholy about the best of his writing which, even when he is at his opaque best (or worst) is beautifully human.

Ultimately, however, The Indian Uprising must be considered a flawed work. The conflation of contrasting ideas – a typically Barthelmian trait – is interesting. Love and war being described through the same central metaphor, for example, is fascinating, and yet it means that the story becomes cluttered. It has no single, central theme. It is trying to say too much. This is where his structural anarchy fails him: points can be made, but not with a force which resonates. The work remains memorable for some magnificent lines, for its inspired invention, and one can perhaps forgive the ‘disconcerting slippage of sense,’ but, as Gass points out Barthelme’s ‘blessed method is everything.’ Gass meant this in praise, but it can only truly be a weakness if it means the story fails to convey its point to the maximum.

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

What do Harry Houdini, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, J Pierpont Morgan, Sigmund Freud, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit ...