E. L. Doctorow - World's Fair
E. L. Doctorow's World's Fair is one of those very American novels, a tale of growing up and expanding horizons, of innocence lost as the scales covering the hero's eyes are removed. It is the story of Edgar, a very young boy with a loving, tired mother and a loving, undependable father and a loving, headstrong older brother. His is a nice family, a kind family, but also a Jewish family, which causes trouble as the 1930s winds down and the Second World War comes home to America. Doctorow has recreated a time that is not forgotten, not yet, but one that is slowly and surely falling away from the grip of the living.
Edgar is our eyes, our camera perhaps, of New York City in the thirties as the Depression rages on, as baseball games are played and Hitler advances across Europe, and as the World's Fair comes to town. He is, as he must be in a novel such as this, more a recording device than a character, a passive observer and not an active participant in the events to which his family is entangled. His mother and father, once Bohemian and carefree, living in the Village and waxing lyrical over socialism, have settled down – the mother more than the father. Edgar's Dad owns an ailing music store, and spends more of his time carousing and gambling than selling records and phonographs to his customers. His older brother, Donald, is Edgar's hero, an intelligent, street-smart, musically gifted teenager who nonetheless senses the subtle poison of his father's dissipation and wants out. Holding them together is Edgar's mother Rosie, a once-beautiful and still handsome woman worn down by encroaching poverty, by her husband's demanding family, and by the growing realisation that her looks, her charm, and her intelligence could have found her a better life if only she had waited a little longer to marry.
Doctorow's aim here is to recapture the essence of New York City in the 1930s, and in this the novel is an unqualified success. Detail oozes from the page in a very natural, believable way – we are not reading lists of popular music in the 30s or privy to obscure Americana, but rather we are introduced to things as Edgar is, and through Edgar's eyes and mind, both of which are bright. Yet while Doctorow may construct buildings and replay old radio recordings well, he is not so good with physical description, and rarely tends beyond the superficial when examining the inner lives of his characters beyond Edgar. This is somewhat forgivable given that we are supposed to be seeing things through the eyes of a boy from his fourth to nine or tenth year, but becomes less so when we remember that the story is presented as the adult Edgar looking back on his childhood. Too many people are described as having a 'shock of hair', and both his mother and father's physical features remain nebulous. Even Edgar's first true crush in life, the seductive, fallen Norma – the mother of a friend – is painted with the thinnest of brushes, astounding when we consider that a climax of World's Fair concerns her naked body. In a novel so concerned with recreation, these gaps puzzle, and finally disappoint.
Edgar's role is to see and to experience, and so he does. He falls ill with appendicitis, which necessitates a trip to the hospital, which then allows Doctorow to resurrect the ghosts of health care in the 30s. Later, Edgar goes to an Andrew Carnegie branch library almost entirely so that it can be explained, described, cast into literature. These are not faults so much as observations of the text. Doctorow is very skilled at this sort of recreation, which would later come to fruition in Billy Bathgate, a novel very much concerned with a similar time period, but which has a strong story around which to attach Doctorow's discerning eye.
It is the nature of such stories to cheat, and World's Fair is no exception. The Hindenburg floating over The Bronx is such an example. Doctorow shows Edgar's excitement and awe with admirable skill, weaving triumph with tragedy – but the tragedy is purely for us, the reader, who surely know of the Hindenburg's fate, and not for the character himself. This is cheating, though there is something of a pleasure attached to it when the writing is of such quality. And, earlier, there is a grandmotherly figure, a character who exists almost entirely so that Edgar will find her dead one morning, and then learn of death, and then think of death. These 'cheats' are never very egregious, but they are there, and that is a shame. The wonders of a full childhood should be discernible without the need to wink at the reader and sneak jokes and historical references that, by their nature, fly over the head of the protagonist.
If this review has come across too negatively, it should be remembered that a work of fiction has a higher responsibility to story-telling than that of a life told well. If this were non-fiction, it would be something of a masterpiece, a slice of a young man's life recreated in perfect, accurate detail. Yet it is fiction, which means that we require more than simply days going by and interaction between major characters. The novel fails in creating much of a plot, which means there is little suspense and virtually no drama. A novel set at the end of the Depression, with Hitler snorting and blustering in Europe as countries fall and regimes change, has so many avenues open to it that could be explored. Doctorow chooses none of them, which seems a bold choice until the results themselves are read. World's Fair is a good book, it is even a strong book, but it is a book that is, ultimately, built on a flimsy foundation. Read it to discover (or rediscover) a time in America that was very hard and difficult for those living it, but seems now to be the caught breath before one of the nation's very greatest struggles. But, try not to read it for plot. Try not to read it for story.
List of American authors under review
New York Times - review