Monday, January 24, 2011

Review: Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow

Ragtime is called one of the best books of its time. It was apparently a trailblazer in terms of the way the novel has evolved. It is included on the lists of 1001 books that will make you a well read person. Obviously I missed something substantial here because it didn't impress me, draw me in, or engage me in any real sort of way. In actuality, I found it to be rather a mess. Then again, my critical facilities may be going haywire or, conversely, it could be an emperor has no clothes kind of situation here. I know which scenario I think it is. Draw your own conclusions.

This historical fiction novel is a pastiche. Ostensibly following several very different characters, Doctorow has woven real historical figures and actual events from the turn of the 20th century (right up until the eve of WWI) into his narrative. A plethora of characters is introduced and then seemingly dismissed in the early stages of the novel, only to reappear on the page later, making coincidental connections with each other. The almost vignette like narratives highlight the major ideas and enthusiasms of the time: Coalhouse Walker's quest for justice highlights rampant racism, Houdini's acts underline the public's fascination with death defying escapes and their interest in the occult, Father's trip to the North Pole emphasizes the way in which exploration still captured the imagination, the trial of Harry Thaw chronicles the birth of the celebrity culture through his actress wife Evelyn Nesbit's role in Stanford White's murder, the pow-wow between Henry Ford and J. P. Morgan showcases the rising industrialization and mechanisation of the time, and so on. Perhaps there's just entirely too much going on in the novel, too many characters, too many themes, and a superficiality to both.

The combination of fictional and real characters resulted in a short-shift approach to both and I found myself lacking sympathy for anyone. Late in the book when one character finally reappears, I just didn't care. And the coincidental intersections of the characters, real or imagined felt too contrived and intentional. This was, of course, a fascinating time period with so much nascent but I felt as if Doctorow had just missed the mark in depicting it. Having read it, I am that much closer to being "well-read" but I'm not any closer to understanding why.


  1. I'm really glad to read of your reaction to this book. I wasn't impressed either. I think you may have hit on a big problem: too much going on - and none of it really absorbing.

  2. I read this a couple of years ago and wasn't that impressed, either.


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