City of God , by E.L. Doctorow. Random House, 272 pages, $25.
Is it possible to capture the human condition in 270 pages? In City of God , his 10th work of fiction, E.L. Doctorow gives it a try.
City of God has many voices and many time frames. It has poetry, Holocaust memoir and descriptions of the formation of the universe. Einstein and Wittgenstein make appearances. Its ambitions are equal to any millennial task. Yet its achievements are more domestic than you might expect. Mr. Doctorow’s wide lens quickly focuses in on recent events on our small island. That’s just as well because that’s when his book is at its best. When he writes about 15 billion years of history, he gets lost in the cosmos; when he writes about Jewish soldiers in World War II, or the look of the Manhattan waterfront, he shows that there are few novelists with talent as deep as his.
City of God begins as a millennial mystery. We learn of a peculiar dilemma facing Thomas Pemberton, the priest in charge of St. Timothy’s Espicopal Church on the Lower East Side: An eight-foot brass cross is missing from behind the altar. At first, Pemberton suspects a crackhead and goes to flea markets looking for it. Then he suspects the local art dealers. But soon he gets a call from a husband-and-wife rabbinical couple who run a new organization called the Synagogue of Evolutionary Judaism on the Upper West Side. Sarah Blumenthal and Joshua Gruen know where the cross is: It’s on their roof. It showed up there in the middle of the night. Either the cause was a freak tornado or a deus ex machina . In short order, one kind of mystery has replaced another. Is Jesus looking to convert?
If Jesus wants to call a halt to Christianity on a nice round anniversary, Pemberton is the man to receive the message. He’s a 60’s refugee who, after 30 years of trying, is now close to giving up his struggle to reclaim his religion from its track record, which for him reached its lowest low in the Holocaust. Here’s an exercise Pemberton gives his congregation: “I asked them to imagine … what mortification, what ritual, what practice might have been a commensurate Christian response to the disaster. Something to assure us our faith wasn’t some sort of self-deluding complacency. Something to assure us of the holy truth of our story. Something as earth-shaking in its way as Auschwitz and Dachau.… I went into some possibilities. A mass exile? A lifelong commitment of millions of Christians to wandering, derelict, over the world? A clearing out of the lands and cities a thousand miles in every direction from each and every death camp?”
The Episcopalian hierarchy isn’t wild about such sermonizing. Hairshirts were fine for the early Christians, but that was then. The higher-ups reassign Pemberton to hospice work on Roosevelt Island. This is just a way station for him. If God’s only begotten son has abandoned Christianity, how can he not follow? At novel’s end, he converts, too. He joins the Synagogue of Evolutionary Judaism and finds solace in a faith with less to apologize for.
City of God has much to admire in it, not least that this is the first philo-Semitic novel in recent memory written by a Jewish writer. (I’m not counting the sentimental Chaim Potok.) Perhaps it should be welcomed just for balance. There are some astonishing set pieces in this book, too. Most notable is a narrative fractured throughout the book in which Sarah Blumenthal’s father describes his experiences as a boy in the Kovno ghetto during the Second World War. Basing his narrative on a victim’s diary, Mr. Doctorow has a chance to show the compact scene-drawing skills that have served him so well over the years. His smooth economical style–I am a moral man telling you a moral story–reinforces his core political point: A single righteous soul can undermine an evil army.
There’s a wonderful passage about a young Jewish bombardier’s experiences in World War II. It is written in a sort of loose blank verse reminiscent of David Jones’ poetry, full of eerie coincidences that reach toward myth. When his plane is shot down over France, he parachutes through stormy clouds and lands roughly, dragged by his chute: “And in the ensuing silence he realized/ he held in one hand an ulna/ a tibia in the other./ He’d arrived in a field of the war before,/ reopened by an errant shell of this war./ It was the improvised graveyard of ancient bones/ and skulls … / the skeletal warriors of his father Ben’s generation/ hastily shoveled under as the Great War moved on.”
I admire Mr. Doctorow’s daring for trying to pull this off–and succeeding.
But I have trouble with the book’s basic premise, which I read as: Judaism good (or at least Judaism as redefined by the Synagogue of Evolutionary Judaism, a sort of hyper-Reconstructionism); Christianity bad. The flip side of philo-Semitism is anti-Christian bias. Coming in for the most blame is St. Augustine–the philosophy behind his City of God is at the opposite extreme from Mr. Doctorow’s leftist humanitarianism. According to St. Augustine, Romans, Jews and other unbaptized souls aren’t just mistaken–they’re damned. Mr. Doctorow, through Pemberton, treats this as a crucial moment in the evolution of the modern world–a considerable simplification.
Intolerance has roots in Judaism, too. Two thousand years of divergent history have done a great deal to obscure this fact, but if one is going back all the way to Augustine, why not go back to Abraham? No sooner has God chosen him than Abraham goes to his father’s house and smashes all the Pagan idols. Can you blame him? The glee, the revelation: just one God, not dozens? And you’d damn well want everyone to share your discovery. The very nature of monotheism is tribal.
Another problem with City of God is the narrator, a writer named Everett, a stand-in for Mr. Doctorow down to the Long Island home and the Bronx High School of Science diploma. Everett is following Pemberton around in order to turn him into a character in a novel. This Rothian setup has comic potential, never realized. Everett has very little love for his subject. He prefers to ruminate. He meditates on how language and physics and stories resonate with a parallel instability. He uses words like “steatopygous” and “flocculent.”
When Everett imagines himself in the heavens–”As the earth spins on its axis, its planetary sloppage of water rises in tidal swells continuously around its periphery, bulging like the cornea of a farsighted eye”–he nearly collapses under the Nova -style verbiage. He’s a luftmensch who can’t quite get airborne.
Most peculiarly, he has this thing about movies–the superficiality of the plot, the simplification of motive, the thinness of the vocabulary. “Film language is an oxymoron,” Everett declares. “Films do close-ups, car drive-ups, places, chases, and explosions.” He takes a meeting with B., a film director who wants him to write a screenplay. Everett finds him … shallow.
Has Mr. Doctorow seen a movie lately? One can almost imagine this story in the hands of Paul Thomas Anderson, the innovative director of Magnolia . As he did in that film, Mr. Anderson might bring all the characters together to sing a threnody for our civilization in the culminating scene. How about “Wise Up” out of the mouths of the Kovno ghetto commandant, Pemberton, Jesus, Einstein and St. Augustine? This is more than a notion. The structure of City of God , as of Ragtime , owes a lot to film grammar. The conversations picked up in the middle, the closeups, the interpolations of the long Holocaust story–all these resemble film, and film-inflected fiction. Indeed, part of the chafing one feels while reading this book is its ambition to transcend the linearity of reading. Mr. Doctorow is not a self-hating Jew–but he turns out to be a self-hating screenwriter.