Proud of myself, I am, for finishing the latest book in the neighborhood book club series, especially since this is not something I would have picked out for myself. But, the assignment was Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow, so I read it!
As someone interested in history, I did enjoy all the historical references and real people who came and went throughout the book, some of whom happened to be favorites of mine (like Emma Goldman, the anarchist). I think it helps to have some clue as to what was going on around the beginning of the twentieth century, though I guess you learn a lot even without any helpful background knowledge. This great review by the late John Brooks said it really well:
This mixture of fact and fiction may confuse or mislead the unwary or historically uninformed reader, and it suggests a projection onto the past of the suspect techniques of the New Journalism. I, for one, although no friend of that aberration, am willing to forgive any historical novelist who makes his flights from historical fact as funny and pertinent as Doctorow makes his. Like Houdini’s audiences, I am made to enjoy being fooled. As to the topical descriptions, they appear to be accurate enough to satisfy an exacting student of Americana. Certainly they are alive enough never to smell the research in old newspaper files that they must have required.John Brooks: From the Archives: A review of E.L. Doctorow’s ‘Ragtime’, Chicago Tribune, March 05, 2015 (Suna’s birthday)
Now, as much as I enjoyed getting to know some fun details about historical figures, especially the imagined inner thoughts of Harry Houdini, the ground-breaking way the book was written seemed a little contrived and sometimes annoying. Here’s how John Brooks (a man of many more words than Suna) put it:
Its narrative style is unorthodox consisting entirely of indirect discourse with no dialogue and a point of view that is neither subjective nor omniscient, merely reportorial; but then, ragtime music was so unsettling to orthodox listeners that they had to pigeonhole it as whorehouse music. It is full of coincidences and implausibilities; that is because, like ragtime, it is not about life but about a dream of life.Ibid.
I grew tired of characters named Mother, Father, Younger Brother, and the brown child. But then, who wouldn’t? At least one or two characters were actually likeable, which is a switch from a few novels I’ve read recently. Mother. I liked her. She was a great symbol of women at that time, who started out merely obedient and meek, then at some point realized she had a brain and a body and they were both fun to use.
This is an “Important American Novel,” (originally published in 1974, when I was busy reading Chaucer in school and Legion of Superheroes at home). So, I guess it behooves me to recommend that you go get it and read it. It certainly takes your mind off the troubles of our current times and all our changing modern conveniences, and plunges you into a world of much different troubles and conveniences (wow, trolleys and streetcars were useful).
If you just trust me and go along with the innovative style and presentation, you’ll find a lot of juicy details into historical figures and a couple of charmingly surprising twists and turn toward the end. I’m still smiling about the ending, so it must have been worth reading!