Thursday, 15 May 2008

City of God: A Novel - a review

City of God - E.L. DoctorowCity of God is a fragmented, dissonant, self-absorbed, and self-referential piece of post-modernist twaddle. Written by someone with real talent. It was only the fact that I had publicly committed to reading the book as part of the 1% Well-Read Challenge that kept me from abandoning it fairly early on in the game, despite the talent and the beautiful language.

The book is essentially a modern cry of despair, the logical conclusion of a worldview essentially wrapped up in self. Everett, the author whose words we are supposedly reading, has this to say about himself. (Or was it his fictitious alter-ego? I forget. It's very hard to keep track of who is speaking sometimes.)
So he is lean, fit, he takes very good care of himself in that way of someone profoundly faithless. He runs, works out almost religiously, for the self-maintenance that is his due.

The main object of his attention is Tom Pemberton, a maverick Episcopal priest who is supposedly seeking to find out who God really is, but who is equally self-absorbed. Witness his take on prayer:
You should try it. As an act of self-dramatization, it can't be beat. You get a hum, a reverberant hum of the possibility of your own consequential voice.

He calls his skull his cathedral, appropriate imagery for several reasons.

The plot, if you can call it that, is highly fragmented, told from various viewpoints, all presumably written by the fictitious author, and is really a series of different stories and metaphysical ramblings, interspersed with an adult version of teen angst poetry, riffing off of some of the classic songs of the early 20th century. A few little ornithological observations are thrown in for a reason which would probably become clear if I reread the book and spent a few hours meditating on its symbolism. (And please, Mr. Doctorow, it's not Canadian geese, it's Canada geese.)

The voice is well-done. Doctorow has a deft way with the language and occasionally throws out a flash of insight that delights. But there are a large number of viewpoint characters, most speaking in the first person, and almost all of them sound alike. This is sloppy characterization and makes it even harder to fit together the shards of story that make up City of God.

All in all, I found this a highly irritating book. From the pretentious arrogance of much of the metaphysical ramblings (I get very annoyed when affirmations of opinion are presented as logical necessities, when they are anything but), to the disjointed "story-telling", to the essentially unsympathetic characters, too much of this book was designed to grate on my nerves, so that its virtues just weren't enough to win me over.

Doctorow has won plenty of awards for his work, so obviously plenty of people disagree with me. I do note, however, that City of God appears to be one of his least popular books as rated by Amazon reviewers.

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Janna Qualman said...

Interesting. Though I've not read anything of the author's (and perhaps will not), a quote of his is my current favorite.

"Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon. (E.L. Doctorow)"

Janet said...

I do have to hand him that, he could describe well. He went on a bit too long with it sometimes, to my taste, but there is no denying he could make you feel you were walking down the streets of New York.

My argument is with the plot "structure", the ideas, the characterization... Believe me, I restrained myself from my habitual rant about experimental literature. If someone really punches my buttons, I'll start throwing words like Sturm und Drang and le nouveau roman around. Both were experimental forms which helped shake things up, but could not endure as forms on their own. They broke too many of the essential rules of literature to be popular with anybody but people who like to see rules broken. City of God stands firmly in that tradition, as far as I'm concerned.

C. B. James said...

Thanks for the review. I'll know to avoid it ;-)_

It really seems like the 1% challenge list has quite a few duds on it.

Though I liked the two I've read so far, I'd only put one of them on the list, and that one really just becuase how many good novels from the 17th century are still around?

Jared said...

This is why I tend to avoid contemporary fiction. Life just isn't that bad.

Janet said...

C.B., only the good ones are still around. The dreck has been forgotten. This is the advantage of reading classics; while they may not correspond to contemporary tastes, they usually have something powerful going for them, which is why they are still being read. What I love to see is a book that has been in print for 50 years. That is usually the sign of a really, really good read.

Jared, I know what you mean. Although City of God technically has a happy ending. Most of the viewpoint characters are better off at the end.

Plays with Needles said...

Oh boy, this one was on my list but I'm thinking of dropping it...

Janet said...

PWN, some people really like this kind of thing. I'm obviously not one of them. But Doctorow does have talent and the book does have virtues. Somehow it continually put me in mind of beatnik poetry, which I haven't even read...

I disagree with most of his ideas, which didn't help. On the other hand, I disagreed with a lot of the ideas in The Life of Pi too, but I loved that book anyway.

Anyway, there's no rule saying you can't swap out titles on your list.


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