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.
Technorati tags: E.L. Doctorow, City of God