Derek's Reviews > Ragtime

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
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Jan 04, 2012

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Read on January 04, 2012

Perhaps E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime is too perfectly suited to my tastes. It has, after all, so many of those things that I tend to look for in a work of fiction: a historical setting (the eve of World War I), well-developed characters (fictitious ragtime pianist, Coalhouse Walker II, in particular), famous people plopped into the story and re-imagined (J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, et al), and a pressing social message (racism and classism of capitalist/industrial society). So what keeps this book short of perfect for me?

Much like John Dos Passos' similar The 42nd Parallel, it's just so damn disjointed. The first half of the novel has only a negligible bearing on the latter half, which grounds itself far more thoroughly in the narrative of Coalhouse Walker. In comparison, the first half is far more pastiche, even on a sentence-level, where Doctorow's disjointed, clipped sentences seem to keep the reader intentionally at a distance. I love Doctorow's suggestion that all of these pieces are mystically, inextricably linked, and a further portrayal of that might come across as heavy-handed, but too often the famous-person sections seem like well-intentioned and imaginative but ultimately divergent exercises.

But, okay, whatever--perhaps I'm being too harsh. Really, this is an excellent novel with a few authorial decisions that simply distanced me as a reader. Even as he's writing in those bizarre, clipped sentences, Doctorow still manages to throw down some real zingers of sentences, and his observations of turn-of-the-century America are apt and fresh. The inclusion of historical figures, while at times a little forced, ultimately won me over. Who wouldn't like to read about J.P. Morgan inviting Henry Ford into a secret society of two, simply because he believes them to be reincarnated members of a superior form of humanity? All of that is gold. But Ragtime is not a perfect novel, or even a just-shy-of-perfect novel like its clear predecessor and inspiration, Dos Passos' USA Trilogy. Worth the read, but don't make the mistake of coming to it with unrealistic expectations, as I did.

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