My rating: 3 of 5 stars
(There is always the danger that when an author’s death prompts you to try their work for the first time, you will find yourself less impressed than you’d hoped and end up having to speak ill of the recently departed. So it is here, sadly.)
The style of Ragtime is its triumph and its downfall. No writer can read this prose and not envy it. Largely simple sentences predominate; they are set down one after the other with little connective tissue, not even the Biblical “and” that characterizes American modernist prose via Hemingway. In this mode of pure and direct narrative, anything at all can find its place in the sequence: there is nothing Ragtime can’t describe, nowhere it can’t go. Brief quotation cannot really duplicate the hypnotic “just one more sentence” effect of Doctorow’s prose, which allows him to create an immense historical panorama (Houdini! Freud! Egypt! Tenements! Anarchists! Mexico!) in impressively few pages.
But the style has nothing to do with the novel’s 1902-1918 time period; Dreiser and Wharton and London did not write this way.* It is, as Jameson famously observed, a postmodern invention, a style that could only have been concocted in the 1970s. Its simplicity is saturated with irony, as if to say, “History isn’t really this simple, but what can I do?” And this irony lays an “only joking” ambiance over the whole novel that renders most scenes into farce, however lyrical otherwise, as in the famous quasi-sexual encounter between anarchist Emma Goldman and socialite Evelyn Nesbit, interrupted by one of Doctorow’s invented characters:
Goldman rubbed the oil into her skin until her body found its own natural rosy white being and began to stir with self-perception. Turn over, Goldman commanded. Evelyn’s hair was now undone and lay on the pillow about her face. Her eyes were closed and her lips stretched in an involuntary smile as Goldman massaged her breasts, her stomach, her legs. Yes, even this, Emma Goldman said, briskly passing her hand over the mons. You must have the courage to live. The bedside lamp seemed to dim for a moment. Evelyn put her own hands on her breast and her palms rotated the nipples. Her hands swam down along her flanks. She rubbed her hips. Her feet pointed like a dancer’s and her toes curled. Her pelvis rose from the bed as if seeking something in the air. Goldman was now at the bureau, capping her bottled emollient, her back to Evelyn as the younger woman began to ripple on the bed like a wave on the sea. At this moment a hoarse unearthly cry issued from the walls, the closet door flew open and Mother’s Younger Brother fell into the room, his face twisted in a paroxysm of saintly mortification. He was clutching in his hands, as if trying to choke it, a rampant penis which, scornful of his intentions, whipped him about the floor, launching to his cries of ecstasy or despair, great filamented spurts of jism that traced the air like bullets and then settled slowly over Evelyn in her bed like falling ticker tape.
Even the marvelous long sentence that ends this passage, perhaps a pastiche of period style, is ultimately a joke with ticker tape as a punchline (imagine an orgasm represented on film, in a parody of euphemism, by a cutaway to a parade with a blaring marching band in a comedy). As Ragtime goes on, one wonders why it has to end at all, why subsequent or even antecedent periods could not be conjured equally well in this manner.
Ragtime traces the fortunes of three families, one WASP, one Jewish immigrant, and one black. The WASP family is presented with relentless sarcasm, their names simply given as Mother, Father, Grandfather, etc. to mock their arrogant assumption of their own normativity. The immigrant Jewish family eventually finds itself upwardly mobile. Its father, Tateh, is the “winner,” more or less, of the novel, after the WASP patriarch has been dispatched and Tateh marries Mother; a pioneer of the movies, Tateh, at the book’s conclusion, makes films of his blended family with Mother. Their three children (WASP, Jewish, and black) form a multicultural community that the novel both celebrates as utopian vision (a rebuke to the complacent assurance on the second page: “There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants.”) and mocks as image-commodity enclosing and obviating the radical energies the middle of the narrative has recorded (labor strikes, racial conflicts, burgeoning anarchism and socialism, the Mexican revolution).
The main event of the novel’s second half, the Michael Kohlhaas homage in which the insulted black musician Coalhouse Walker stages a revolt against white America, is too unsubtle and anachronistic to be compelling. Walker himself is a cipher, hardly characterized, and the interesting reflections of his cohort on effective militancy transparently belong to the 1960s not the 1910s. Doctorow’s efforts to track Kleist prove misleading; I thought the irony of Martin Luther’s attempt to stop Kohlhaas is that Kohlhaas’s absolute sense of his rights is in a way the product of Luther’s own revolt. The intervention of the conservative Booker T. Washington in Ragtime can have no such significance—again, were this set in the 1960s, Doctorow could have brought Luther’s namesake, Martin Luther King, onstage to much greater effect. The whole episode, supposedly the novel’s emotional and political center, eventually seems flippant, just as the style itself does—it is insulting to still find weakly sarcastic sentences such as “After-the-swim was soon established by Father as the time for amour” on the 289th page, not that such cheap shots as “There was a lot of sexual fainting” on the second page impressed me much. Why even write a historical novel with this attitude of complacent self-assurance? By the end, I felt that Doctorow was more the peer of Jon Stewart than of Roth, Morrison, or DeLillo.
*I suppose it will be objected that the style is meant to imitate the titular music. But the connections between prose and music are too attenuated to prevent a strictly literary analysis of strictly literary effects.