Chris's Reviews > Ragtime

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
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's review
Jan 30, 2010

it was amazing

Wow, can this guy write. Wow. Enjoyed the book for its history of the period and how this engulfed its characters, and especially for the writing.

from the book:

Once, years before, he had arranged a dinner party at his residence on Madison Avenue in which his guests were the dozen most powerful men in America besides himself. He was hoping the collected energy of their minds might buckle the walls of his home. Rockefeller startled him with the news that he was chronically constipated and did a lot of his thinking on the toilet. Carnegie dozed over his brandy. Harriman uttered inanities. Gathered in this one room the business elite could think of nothing to say. How they appalled him. How his heart quaked. He heard through his brain the electric winds of an empty universe. He ordered the servants to place garlands of laurel on every pate and crown. Without exception the dozen most powerful men in America looked like horse’s asses. But the pomposity that had accrued with their wealth persuaded them that perhaps these ridiculous vines held some significance. Not one of the women thought to laugh. Thy were hags. They sat on their large draped behinds, breasts drooping under their decolletage. Not an ounce of wit among them. Not a light in their eyes. They were the loyal wives of great men and the hard pull of rampant achievement had sucked the life out of their flesh. Revealing nothing of his feelings Morgan hid behind his fierce and doughty expression. A photographer was summoned to make a picture. There was a flash — the solemn moment was recorded.

Doctorow is a fine writer, and his recreation of the era between 1900 and the first World War is evocative and persuasive. He communicates expectations and disappointments and movements of the spirit without wasting a word, and his crowd scenes and tenement neighborhoods and picnics of five thousand are equally deft. The book has a compressed style, and lacks quotes for the dialog, for some reason,. It works, but it’s unclear why he does this — maybe to show the distance of reverie from his material, which was 75 years before publication? Several historical figures show up in the book, and two of them, Houdini and J. P. Morgan, figure as major characters. Morgan, an American financial titan without peer, who preferred Pierpont to J. P., is the subject of the excerpt above. He turned to reincarnation in his despair, and plotted to build himself a pyramid. Doctorow’s book operates on many levels at once: the style is beautiful but oddly blunt, the stories convince and move, the details and sets are a walk through a world long gone, and the characters unwittingly embody the themes of their age as Doctorow methodically unspools their interconnected lives. But this is all under the surface, and above all it is simply a good book, an enjoyable work of historical fiction, one of the most enjoyable of genres in my experience when done well like this.
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