Friday, February 03, 2006

The March by E.L. Doctorow

Doctorow's Ragtime was a novel I read at just the right age--I found a beat-up copy sometime during junior high and then got to take a day off of school to hear Doctorow speak during senior high (the kind of expedition that, at my school at least, only so-called gifted students got to make, and yet the kind of expedition that would make learning so much more engaging for all students)--and it probably set me up for a lifelong interest in historical fiction (that and that romance series about the founding of the west that started with Independence! and then went through all of the states (to-be-states) on the wagon trail).

Historical literary fiction always seems, to me, a little more important than contemporary literary fiction (unfairly so, probably), and more likely to have a lasting presence. Even novels of recent history (like Morrison's Paradise, Roth's American Pastoral) seem more weighty than up-to-the-minute novels. This may simply have to do with attaching personal stories to moments in history that have proven to have significance. A novel attached to Bush II and Iraq II written right now might feel as important as one written ten or twenty years from now.

Anyway... The March, Doctorow's most recent novel, is written in the collage structure that has grown quite popular with post-post-modernists, and I loved it as I read it...and with so many collages, when the end didn't find a way to complete the picture, the book didn't feel entirely successful. It doesn't, for example, find that one image that brings all of the narratives into one final cohesive unit, the way Edward Jones managed to do in The Known World, with his amazing final image of the quilt. But it's still well worth reading for the evocative writing and the wonderful images throughout.

The March, like Ragtime, uses real events and real people interspersed with fictional events and fictional people. In this case, all connected to Sherman's march across the South during the American Civil War. I've meant for a long time to try writing historical fiction, and this is a good reminder to move that idea up on my list of projects. When I was a graduate student, one of my colleagues (Elissa Minor Rust--go check out her new book of short stories) used to write historical fiction and we would all discuss this with amazement-- "You mean, she goes to the library and does research before she writes?" we would ask each other, wide-eyed. It wasn't that the concept seemed so crazy but that we couldn't imagine where she found the time. But I think grads and undergrads alike would benefit from occasionally attaching the personal to the historic--it could broaden the scope and increase the depth of their otherwise well-crafted language.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Having read the book over a month ago I find I have forgotten the female characters. Including an assortment of white and black women straggling along seemed rather forced. It is Sherman, the doctor, the deserter, the photographer that left a more lasting impression