Saturday, October 16, 2010

World's Fair by E. L. Doctorow (1985)

My next dip into Harold Bloom's western canon list is World's Fair by E. L. Doctorow (1985). This is the first Doctorow I've read (although I hear that Ragtime and Billy Bathgate are very good), and I'd love to read more.

World's Fair is a story of Edgar, a nine-year old boy growing up in the Bronx in the late 1930s with his music-salesman father, his often-frustrated mother, and his much older brother. The strengths of World's Fair aren't in breathtaking action sequences or tightly structured plot twists -- instead, the book slowly creates a fully experienced time and place for the reader in a way that few historically-set books can do. Doctorow's own life closely mirrors that of Edgar, including a coveted trip to the World's Fair, so it is understandable that the details of the neighborhood, family, and house are so vivid and moving.

The book is written in first person, from Edgar's perspective (with occasional brief chapters from other relatives), but the voice of the narrator masterfully moves between the emotions and naivety of a young boy and the poetry and philosophy of a grown man remembering his past. Even more than the detailed descriptions, this narrative voice is the heart of the book.

[also, I haven't watched the whole thing, but if you are interested in the 1939 World's Fair (or Westinghouse, or little boys wearing ties, or parental guilt trips -- skip to about 8:30 for the fair), this is probably worth a look.]


Just remembered that I had marked a particularly nice passage to quote:

Death was on my mind, I thought about it, brooded about it, and studied its representations. I had an old book of nursery rhymes that I hadn't looked at in a while. The letters were large, the drawings tinted in pale orange and pale green. The children and other beings in nursery rhymes were peculiar, ethereal, they inhabited nations, worlds, with which I was not familiar. Their characters were a source of uneasy imaginings. Little Miss Muffet: I would not call any girl of my acquaintance Miss anything; this one was so prissy and girlgood as to be insufferable, fully deserving her fate. I did not like Humpty Dumpty, who lacked all manly definition and was so irrevocably fragile. Georgie Porgie, Jack Horner, Jack and Jill, all seemed to me unnatural abstractions of child existence; there was some menacing propaganda latent in their circumstances but I couldn't quite work out what it was. It was a strange planet they lived on, some place of enormous fearful loneliness and punishment. Or it was as if they were dead but continued to be alive. Whatever happened to them kept happening over and over, good or bad, and I perceived a true moral in this repetition of fate, this recurring inevitable conclusion to the flaws in their beings. They suffered humiliation, damage, and shame, all forms of death or the feeling of death. They were like my dreams -- birds flew out of pies, children ran with kings and queens, sheep, those most docile and slow-moving of animals, ran away, whereas the sheep in the Farm exhibit in Claremont Park in the spring didn't even move when you touched them. No human, animal or egg acted quite right in these stories. My final unalterable judgment was that nursery rhymes were for babies and I would not suffer hearing them again.

No comments: